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Proxy wars continue in Lyari

Updated February 14, 2012


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. – File Photo

KARACHI: A little before midday on Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai Road in Lyari, there is not much traffic apart from donkey carts laden with wooden beams, sheets of plastic and the like. 'Fashion Tailors and Cloths' has just opened for the day, while many others, like 'Chord Track Musical Art Centre' are still shuttered. In front of tea stalls along the road, are rows of benches with elderly men sitting and enjoying the morning sunshine.

This deceptively peaceful scene is on a stretch of road that forms a border of sorts. A border between areas dominated by the proscribed People's Aman Committee (PAC) and the Kutchhi Rabita Committee (KRC). And there are times when bullets fly from one side to the other. The PAC, dominated by members of the Baloch community and until recently openly supported by the Pakistan Peoples Party, has for years been the dominant force in Lyari. The KRC, meanwhile, is an organisation that claims to represent the Kutchhis, many of whom have lived in Lyari since before independence. Although the two communities intermingle and socialise, there have been sporadic skirmishes between the PAC and the KRC over the past couple of years that have claimed many lives.

Mohammed Ibrahim, a tea stall owner on Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai Road, describes how two months ago a group of men who he says were affiliated with the PAC sped down the road on motorcycles while firing at passers-by. Abdul Rehman Hingoro, a Kutchhi and producer at a private television channel, was killed in the attack which stretched into a prolonged gun battle between the gangsters and members of the KRC that left several dead and wounded. “As always we pulled down the shutters and ran home,” says Ibrahim.

Only last Sunday Zubair alias Vahshi who is said to be the right-hand man of Baba Ladla, the head of a group involved in gang warfare, was shot dead in Kutchhi Mohallah.

These are just a few glimpses of the deadly rivalries that have rent the fabric of life in Lyari over the past few years. The area, although deprived and beset with more than its share of urban ills, including street crime, drugs and extortion at the hands of local mafia groups, was once associated with the Sheedi culture and their mesmerising musical tradition of lewa . Lyari is home to some of the oldest settled communities in Karachi. The largest majority is that of the Baloch (of which the Sheedi are a part), followed by the Kutchhis, Sindhis, Punjabis, Pakhtuns and Urdu-speaking communities.

Then, in early 2003, during President Musharraf's government, Rehman Baloch, leader of one of the gangs in Lyari, fell out with a counterpart, Arshad Pappu, over bhatta (protection money) from intercity and goods transporters who passed through the area, and Lyari descended into wholesale gang warfare. A number of splinter gangs were also spawned from the chaos, forming expedient alliances with one side or the other. A long-time resident says bitterly, “These men recruited youngsters, gave them a few hundred rupees, a mobile and a pistol, and used them as their foot soldiers.” It is estimated that around 500 to 600 people were killed between 2003 and 2008 in the gang war.

Observers also allege that the situation was exploited by intelligence agencies and certain political parties to divide the people and disrupt life in an area that has long been a traditional PPP stronghold.

Fast forward about a decade. Rehman Baloch (who over time earned himself the sobriquet of Rehman Dakait), after succeeding in bringing most of Lyari under his gang's control, has been shot dead in a police encounter but not before uniting most of the disparate gangs in the area under the umbrella of the People's Aman Committee. Following his death, the PAC is headed by Uzair Baloch. Arshad Pappu is behind bars and Pappu's gang, led by Ghaffar Zikri for several years after Pappu's incarceration, has been more or less wiped out in Lyari. Zikri himself is said to have sought shelter in Balochistan and the ragtag remnants of his gang, say sources in the police, have allied themselves with other foes of Uzair Baloch in areas such as Golimar and Ilyas Goth in Liaquatabad. And the PAC has been banned in an effort by the PPP to placate its coalition partner, the MQM. The Kutchhi community by now also has its own organisation, the Kutchhi Rabita Committee, which flexes its muscles when needed. “We came into existence in 2010 to counter the increasing excesses being committed by the bhatta mafia of the PAC people,” says Karim Kutchhi, member of the KRC information cell.

But here, as in politics elsewhere, it's smoke and mirrors. Alliances are tenuous and shifting, based on the principle, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Groups double-cross each other all the time and the bottom line is cold hard cash — which in terms of Lyari and nearby areas translates mainly into earnings from bhatta extracted from markets, hotels, godowns and transporters.

These groups are also used by the parties to score points against each other in the larger political arena. Often, this proxy war is fought along ethnic lines, and claims scores of lives, mainly from the Baloch and Urdu-speaking communities. In one of the worst single incidents, such as in October 2010, a dozen people were massacred in the Shershah auto parts market, where most of the shopkeepers are Urdu-speaking. One of them, who lost his brother that day, says, “Business has never been the same. Whereas before shops here used to be open until after sunset now we rush home around 4pm because we're afraid. Business is down 50 per cent.” It was alleged that the attackers were men closely linked with the PAC.

It is widely believed in Lyari that the MQM, with help from elements of Ghaffar Zikri's gang are behind the KRC's new found belligerence as well as being responsible for hit-and-run attacks in PAC-dominated areas. According to Zafar Baloch, a former PAC leader and, until recently, the PPP's general secretary district south, “With the elections coming up, they want to create divisions along ethnic lines so as to divide the PPP vote bank here.”

The party's representatives deny the allegation completely. MQM leader Nasreen Jalil says, “We get 85 per cent of the votes in Karachi. Why would we want to disrupt peace anywhere in the city? These are their own internal tussles and we have nothing to do with them.”

At the moment, there is comparative peace in Lyari, the odd grenade or gun attack notwithstanding, which is, say residents defensively, not surprising in a place awash with arms and in the crosshairs of competing political agendas.

Members of the defunct PAC, whose 150-plus offices in Lyari and beyond have been converted into the PPP local offices, still have an iron grip over the area. “No one can survive here unless they allow you to do so,” says a local policeman. Another police official, SP Fayyaz Khan, says that the militant wing of the latter is very much in action, and headed by Baba Ladla, whose close associate was the main accused in the Shershah attack.

The PPP has long abdicated control of Lyari to members of the erstwhile PAC and relies on its strong-arm tactics to win seats from the area and, say residents, despite the ban on the PAC, things will not be different this time around. In the wake of the ban, a rally of Lyariities was led by members of the defunct PAC in support of the Pakistan military following the Salala attack by Nato forces. Significantly, no PPP flags — only Pakistan ones — were displayed on the occasion, which was designed to send a message to the party to not take their support for granted.

In some respects however, residents in areas dominated by the defunct PAC insist there is a change. They say that Uzair Baloch and co. have realised that prolonged strife of the kind witnessed by Lyari in the previous decade is no long-term solution to the area's problems.

While they concede that the traditional revenue generation methods of the group remain the same, and breakaway criminal gangs with uncertain affiliations continue to disrupt life, they say that organisations like the Lyari Resource Centre (LRC) have been given space to work in the area, especially in the education sector. The LRC, staffed by educated Lyariites, is undertaking educational reform in the area and overseeing projects that are part of the Lyari Development Package.

An education festival was held in January, the first of its kind in Lyari, in which over 20,000 children and their teachers from secondary schools all over the area participated. Elahi Bux Baloch, a member of the LRC, bristles at the suggestion that the LRC is a reincarnation of the defunt PAC. “The media has always displayed a bias against Lyari,” he says. “They cannot bring themselves to report on anything positive from here.”

According to former international footballer and ex-FIFA referee Ahmed Jan, members of the defunct PAC, have also begun to promote local football clubs and stadiums are abuzz with activity. “Even if they're doing it for self-projection, the fact is that it's a good thing.”