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Local residents shout slogans on a street during an operation by Pakistani paramilitary rangers against criminal gangs in Lyari early on August 24, 2011. – AFP Photo

KARACHI: On a seemingly calm Sunday, when the Rangers’ operation in the city’s oldest quarter was on and Zulfiqar Mirza was making headlines with his diatribe, many in Lyari felt that their voices were not being heard by the politicians and the media.

“Our locality and its inhabitants are being singled out as being part of a gang war that is sabotaging peace in the city,” said Mohammad. A driver by profession, Mohammad, 33, belongs to the Katchi community and is a resident of Old Kumhar wara. “Despite the hype we see about Lyari’s gangs and goons, I was never hurt or threatened by any Baloch in Lyari. For me, the town is my second home.”

Visibly frustrated at the way things were going on in the city, he said, “If the Rangers operation is necessary it has to be across the board. Why is it that it’s only Lyari that is being targeted and termed as a ‘gangsters’ town?”

Living in abject poverty with little means to sustain their day to day existence, the locals feel that broken promises of their elected representatives and the media are responsible for the crisis that this area faces.

“I’m a Baloch from Lyari and I’m not a gangster. Please stop Lyari’s media trail,” said Raza (not his real name), a 23 years old student who runs a net café in the area.

Talking about the recent turn of events that have once again shoved Lyari into the limelight for all the wrong reasons, he says, “The media is very biased and polarised. Lyari was never a ‘No Go’ area for anyone. We have all kinds of ethnic groups living in the same neighborhood; we share each other’s sorrows and happiness together. However, the media is hell bent on creating a hostile picture and there is no one willing to share our stories.”

Of the ethnic violence and gang war in the area, he says its  “political in nature with extortionists calling the shots.”

“But it’s not only the killings that are worrying us. After the brutal killing of five men from Lyari, many employers have asked their Baloch workforce not to come to work as security cannot be guaranteed. As it is, poverty and lack of employment opportunities has been frustrating the residents of Lyari for years. Now, this will allow more youngsters to go for the guns and drugs.”

With its narrow interlinked lanes that are no less a maze, a trip to the area is an eye opener. With many communities living side by side, the place once known for its late night rendezvous and football crazy locals is now a shadow of its former self.

Shahid Husain, a senior Journalist and former activist, termed Lyari the most vibrant place in Karachi with its unique sub-culture. “I have never seen such a lively place. I use to go to Lyari everyday when I was a student. I never felt threatened because the people there were so friendly and loving.” But that was over three decades ago and then the downfall of this peaceful locality began. “Considered a stronghold of the Pakistan People’s Party, Lyari was transformed when heroine and Kalashnikov were introduced during the Afghan War. That was a dictator’s gift.”

A woman weeps as she looks at the picture of her son who was killed after being kidnapped from Lyari, outside Edhi Center in Karachi on Friday. – Online Photo

A highly populated area, with the 1998 census stating Lyari’s population to be over 600000; Lyari is no more than a slum. Come elections and the politicians throng the area for getting the maximum political mileage and disappear once in the assembly. Years of neglect and official apathy hasn’t gone unnoticed by the locals and nor has the ‘gifts’ of dictators.

“Despite being the oldest slum in South Asia, Lyari was always known for its peace and calm and the mutual respect that people had for various communities. It was a peaceful coexistence,” said Asghar Baloch, a government school teacher.

Sharing a similar sentiment as Raza and others, he too blamed the media for being biased, with “the ‘gang war’ being created by the media”.

“Petty drug peddlers in Lyari are portrayed as larger than life characters by the media,” he said.

“The then government of Arbab Ghulam Rahim and its ally the MQM deliberately allowed the killing of the people of Lyari by two rival gangs,” he alleged.

“The Musharraf regime allowed for the systematic nurturing of violence. The drug peddlers and goons, who were criminals and should have been dealt accordingly, were given a freehand and now they rule the roost. They (government) ignored the killings in Lyari when one Baloch was killing another Baloch for drug money. Many of the Baloch men who were killed were not gangsters or from the drug mafia. But because Lyari was never their vote bank, they looked away.”

“No one did anything for this area and the communities living here. The very youngsters who lost their family members in gang war back then are now holding guns and trying to avenge for their loss. Today Lyari is once again being used for political gains while the future of its people looks bleak,” he added.

Fearing for their lives and afraid of being singled out, many Baloch residents have stopped venturing to other parts of the town. A vocal matriarch, Hamida Baloch says that her children have barred her from travelling to other areas. “I wear Balochi dress. My children say that I could be kidnapped and killed,” she said. She claimed that some of her acquaintances were humiliated and had their heads and eyebrows shaved by men from the Urdu-speaking community.

Recalling old times, she said that she was born and bred in Karachi and her family members playing an active part in the development of the Karachi port. “Our forefathers moved to Karachi back in 1880’s from Balochistan. Their sweat and blood is there in the foundation of the Karachi Port Trust. My grandchildren are the fifth generation who were born here in Karachi. We are the children of this soil and are more loyal and patriotic to Karachi than anyone else and today we are being called criminals, it really hurts!” she complained.

On the Rangers’ operation in Karachi, she said that her family and those in neighbourhood did not join in the protests as “we want an operation against anyone who is involved in violence in the city.”