Residents from a violence-hit neighbourhood weep after returning home in Karachi. – AFP

KARACHI: Life stopped for Pakistani cab driver Ghulam Mohammed when his seven-year-old daughter was shot dead on her way home from school, a victim of senseless political and ethnic violence sweeping Karachi.

Shumaila was Mohammed's only child, born after he and his wife struggled for 12 years to have a baby. It took two stray bullets to bury all the hopes and dreams they had for the future.

“She was the one who gave meaning to our life. Now we have no reason to live,” said the tearful 36-year-old, a resident of Qasba Colony, one of a series of troubled neighbourhoods in western Karachi turned into a battlefield.

Shumaila was one of 300 people whom the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) says died in political and ethnically linked shootings in Karachi last month and one of the 800 killed since the start of this year.

She was carrying her books when the bullets pierced her abdomen and splintered a rib. Seriously wounded, she was eventually picked up by an ambulance after medics struggled to access the street under gunfire.

“Someone told me my daughter had been shot and I rushed to hospital despite all the risks, only to find her dead in the morgue,” Mohammed said.

Authorities appear powerless to stop the bloodshed, human rights activists say, pointing out that most of the victims are innocent civilians.

“People have been killed because of their political affiliations, but it seems most are killed because of their ethnic background,” Zohra Yusuf, chairwoman of the HRCP, told AFP.

“The majority of them are poor and destitute.”

Shumaila was Pashtun. Her father arrived in Karachi from the northwest 20 years ago looking for work and then settled down and got married.

Today the northwest is on the frontline of Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked bomb attacks and the migrant flow to Karachi is even greater.

Shumaila's bereaved parents live on a congested street in a neighbourhood of Urdu and Pashtun speakers, where trigger-happy gunmen from both sides can quickly reduce the area into a battlefield.

HRCP says Karachi suffers political, ethnic and sectarian “polarisation”.

But the government blames vague mafias involved in land grabbing and drug pushing for the killings, and for creating “misunderstandings” among political parties and ethnic hatred.

“It should not be called ethnic violence,” said Sharfuddin Memon, an official in the home ministry of the southern province Sindh, of which Karachi is the capital.

“The mafias are killing people in such a manner that rival communities and parties are left with the impression of an ethnic war which is not there. The mafias do this to get stronger and weaken the writ of the state.”

The Urdu-speaking family of Anwer Ali, 22, say he was walking to work when unknown gunmen shot him dead.

“He was the only bread earner for his mother and two sisters,” said his cousin Mohsin Ali.

The family rent a one-room house in a squatter settlement near the area of Katti Pahari, a flashpoint for the most recent violence, and are deeply frightened about the future.

It is not just shootings. People have seen everything they own go up in smoke, with their houses, buildings and vehicles set alight by arsonists.

Despite the deployment of extra police and paramilitary forces, residents complain that the security personnel do nothing to help.

“Mafias are involved in the killings, but armed wings of political parties have played a big role in creating the mess,” said Tauseef Ahmed Khan, who teaches mass communications at Urdu University.

The armed wings work to maintain party influence, prevent rival groups from infiltrating their territories and force people to remain loyal, he said.

“There are killings on ethnic grounds while most of the victims are poor people who don't know the reason why they are being killed,” Khan said.

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