“We used to pay Rs 50 to gang members. Now we pay Rs 20 to gangsters in uniform,” jokes Shahzad Rehman, a middle-aged cart pusher selling bananas in Lyari’s Jhatpat Market, where residents of this old Karachi neighbourhood come to buy groceries, clothes and cosmetics. Rehman flashes a broad smile and explains that nothing happens in this neighbourhood without paying bribes to either gangsters or police officers.
Poorly trained policemen in shabby uniforms amble through the market, smiling as they extort money from cart pushers, shopkeepers and vendors as they pass. “If I don’t have enough money to pay the cops, I give them an orange,” says Shakil, a boy who sells fruit. “We have to pay in order to run our business, to feed our families.”
In exchange for a bribe, cops usually turn a blind eye to illegally parked carts. They seem remarkably at ease with the idea of openly extorting money from the very people they have been hired to protect. “This is Pakistan. It happens here,” says Shakil with a shrug. “They extort money in plain sight and everyone knows it.” Since most vendors don’t have permits to use the space where they set up shop, bribing the police seems like a small price to pay.
While talking to The Express Tribune, a shopkeeper reports that until eight or nine months ago gangsters were the ones demanding extortion money from shopkeepers and cart pushers. “There were many businessmen who paid Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 monthly, while cart pushers paid Rs 30 per day,” he says. “Those were the days notorious Lyari gangsters Uzair Baloch and Noor Mohammed, also known as Baba Ladla, operated armed gangs. They were responsible for the protection and maintenance of law and order in Lyari and other Baloch-majority areas of Karachi for years.” These days gangsters don’t enjoy the freedom they did a couple of years ago when they roamed the streets like security guards, armed to the teeth.
Lyari has always made headlines because of violent gang warfare, but it witnessed its bloodiest days in 2014 and 2015 when an estimated 2,000 people were brutally murdered, many of whom were innocent victims caught in the crossfire. “This was when Uzair Baloch and Baba Ladla held sway over the entire neighbourhood and many other parts of Karachi,” said a former close friend of an armed gang, who wished to remain anonymous. A stream of prominent visitors came to pay homage to the self-proclaimed ‘Sardar’, among whom were the Chief Minister Sindh Syed Qaim Ali Shah, Deputy Speaker of the Sindh Assembly Shehla Raza, Home Minister Sharjeel Memon, Faryal Talpur, cricket star Shahid Afridi, religious cleric Tariq Jameel, PPP’s Zulfiqar Mirza and Karachi’s well known trader Atiq Mir.
In the summer of 2013, a bombing during the final match of a street football tournament turned Lyari into a bloody battleground. The intended target, Baba Ladla, survived the attack, but more than 25 innocent children were killed and many others were injured in the outrageous attack. In retaliation to the attempt on Baba Ladla’s life, Zafar Baloch, leader of the now defunct Amn Committee, was killed in a targeted attack in late 2013. This marked the start of a killing spree as bloody clashes broke out throughout Lyari claiming hundreds of lives. Residents preferred to stay indoors within the relative safety of their homes. Many women and children were mowed down. “I lost my nephew Shahid Baloch, a shopkeeper,” says Amin Baloch, newly elected councilor of Rexer Line, one of the most troubled areas of Lyari at the time. According to residents of Kalakot, Shahid Baloch was killed by the notorious gangster Rashid, also known as Rashid Chechi, who is now in police custody. Amin shakes his head and says, “I don’t think there was a single street in Lyari that escaped the killings.” Lost in thought, he pauses for a moment, and then adds, “Our children simply stopped playing soccer.”
After a series of protests in the aftermath of the massacre, Rangers and paramilitary troops launched anti-gang operations, killing many gangsters and forcing others into hiding.
According to documents obtained from the office of the Superintendent of Lyari’s police, as many as 361 gangsters have been killed in targeted operations since January 2014. The statistical report compiled by the police of Lyari states, “At least 222 gangsters were killed in 2014, around 130 in 2015 and nine during the past three months of this year.” Those killed were all men in their late teens or early twenties.
Police records state that in total, 1,000 people have been killed in Lyari since 2013. However, residents and journalists put the number of victims at more than 2,000. “The number of casualties was very low among members of law enforcement agencies,” said a senior officer who took part in the operation, and requested to remain anonymous. “During the three years of the operation, we lost only eight police officers.”
While the recent operation has brought a modicum of relief to the people of Lyari, it has not given them complete peace of mind. “Street crime has increased at an alarming rate,” reports Amin. “After sunset, thieves roam the streets on motorbikes, robbing people under the cover of darkness,” he informs. While Amin appreciates the increase in police patrols, he says their performance still leaves much to be desired. Recently a woman in Eidgah was shot during a robbery and the perpetrators are still at large, he shares. In Rexer alone, 10 people were robbed within a month, he adds.
Many people allege that corrupt police personnel are hampering efforts to improve the situation. Their collusion in robberies and street crimes makes it harder for honest cops to trace culprits. Sajid Ali, a resident of Gul Mohammed Lane, complains that when robberies and mobile snatching are reported, the police often use the plea for help to further harass and loot victims. Ali is not the only one to level serious allegations against the law enforcers. Just about everyone in Lyari agrees that rogue cops are part of the problem. “There are good cops who have rid us of notorious gangsters, but in general, we still have a long way to go before our trust in the police is restored,” says Ali.
Superintendent of Lyari’s Police Aftab Nizamani denies these allegations, insisting that his officers are making every effort to establish law and order. Sitting in his office at Baghdadi Police Station he says, “Police personnel are sacrificing their lives in pursuit of a durable peace.” Although he acknowledges that there are a few bad apples in the ranks, he insists his officers deserve credit for their efforts to combat gang violence. “You can go anywhere in Lyari without fear now,” he asserts. When asked how he accounts for the rise in street crime, Nizamani admits that gangsters are no longer a major presence in Lyari but a few holdouts still exist. “People are refusing to pay extortion fees, and gangsters are no longer able to kidnap for ransom so, they are resorting to street crime,” he explains, “but the fact remains that Lyari now enjoys a lower crime rate than any other part of Karachi,” he adds. At that moment an officer enters to inform the SP that a woman has lodged a complaint about a local gangster who has taken possession of her house. Nizamani directs the cop to look into the matter.
Despite serious challenges facing Lyari, and the continued existence of no-go areas, the government seems to take little interest in getting the Lyari police to do a better job at enforcing the law and restoring peace. “There is a severe staffing shortage in Lyari,” states an official report made available to The Express Tribune. “The number of policemen in Lyari is woefully inadequate for the maintenance of public order.” The document elaborates that around 715 police officers were supposed to be deployed at four police stations across Lyari in 2005. More than a decade later, with a significantly higher population, a mere 455 policemen have been deployed. There are 98 police officers deployed at Kalari Police Station, 141 at Kalakot, 116 at Baghdadi and 97 at Chakiwara, according to the document. At least 70 of the total 455 officers are either personal guards or assigned to desk duty. Interestingly, police records indicate that across the entire city of Karachi, not a single driver has been recruited by the police department since 1992. “When we need additional officers, we are forced to get them from other areas. We simply don’t have enough officers in Lyari right now,” confirms Nizamani.
To address the staffing shortage, police officers are expected to work for 12 to 14 hours. In their interviews, the officers expressed dissatisfaction with their pay and benefits. “If someone gives us food, is that so bad?” asks one officer, alluding to the common although unlawful practice of accepting food in exchange for small favours. “How can you expect a police officer, earning merely Rs 20,000 to Rs 35,000, to not be involved in such activities? If you’re in the Pakistan Army or Sindh Rangers you don’t need to worry about schooling for your children because a good education for your children is provided as a part of the compensation package,” another officer explains. “Why is it not the same for the police?” he concludes.
Asked whether he expects the decrease in gang activity to last, SP Nizamani is not entirely optimistic. “Lyari’s poor are in desperate need of better education and jobs,” he says. “People refer to it as gang warfare but the issue is also political and economical in nature. The majority of people here are jobless or daily wage earners living hand to mouth,” he explains. “It would be unrealistic to expect the recent lull in gang activity to hold unless the underlying socio-economic problems are also addressed,” he says.
Another threat to Lyari’s fragile, semi-peace comes from the notorious gangster Noor Mohammed, also known as Baba Ladla, reported to be alive and well, living in hiding somewhere in Iran. “A credible source reports that he recently contacted a senior Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader. Clearly, Lyari is still extremely vulnerable,” says another senior police officer on the condition of anonymity.
Police records show that there were more murders from 2011 to 2013 when there were bloody clashes between the Baloch and the Kutchi communities. “In those days around five to six people were killed on a daily basis,” a police officer, who was deputed in Lyari at the time, recalls.
Murad Mohammed of Baghdadi, a former PPP supporter, holds the party responsible for many of the deaths in Lyari. Feeling betrayed, he says, “The last election proves PPP will support evil if it means they can win a seat for the party. We do not deserve Sania Naz as our representative. She is the girlfriend or wife of notorious gangster Ameen Buledi.” He says he cried the day Naz was elected as MPA. “Our women are not like her and our men are not criminals,” he says. “I will never vote for PPP again.”
At a station house in Kalakot, an area once the main hideout of gang ringleaders, Mohammed Iqbal, 32-year-old police veteran insists that one of the main problems people face is a complete lack of educational facilities. “People are poor and unable to provide an education for their children,” he says. “This directly affects the economic and social environment. Youngsters are easily lured into illegal activities when they have no other options.”
Journalists and elders in Lyari believe criminal gangs enjoy the backing of powerful elements in the country who want to distract the local population from forming their own nationalist party, or drumming up support for a nationalist leader in Balochistan. “The police need to be strengthened to maintain law and order,” explains journalist Saeed Sarbazi, a resident of Lyari. “The problem in Lyari is not so much of a turf war as a political problem,” he stresses. “Powerful elements in our establishment want to prevent any nationalist party from consolidating its position in Lyari out of the fear that another Balochistan-like situation might develop,” he elaborates.
In recent months, Lyari has seen a notable decline in the bloodshed. Residents attribute this decline to targeted raids conducted by Rangers on gangsters affiliated with Uzair Baloch and Baba Ladla. However, many believe the operations only targeted one group, leaving the other free to continue its drug dealing and other criminal activities with impunity. “You can see for yourself the gambling spots, the wine shops and other illegal businesses are still operational in Goli Mar and other areas,” says Sarbazi.
In the meantime, Lyari, the birthplace of so many talented young footballers, boxers and cyclists, is losing much of its talent to the ongoing violence. Shahzeb, a young footballer who played for Pakistan’s under-16 football team in China in 2013, was killed by Rangers during a raid in Malir in 2014. After failing to land a job, he was lured by gangsters with the promise of money. “He was a great footballer, rare in Pakistan,” says Mohammed Uzair, Shahzeb’s close friend. Shahzeb was involved in small crimes but he did not deserve to die, says Mohammed. “We are hopeless since no steps are being taken to improve the situation. Footballers are being deprived of jobs and Pakistan Football Federation remains the most corrupt organisation,” he says.
Another victim, Saqib, a young professional boxer affiliated with the Karachi Port Trust (KPT), WAPDA and KESC, ended up joining a gang out of sheer frustration before he was killed by the police in 2014. KPT’s star footballer Ismail Baba also fell victim to the operations and was gunned down by Rangers near Gul Mohammed Lane. Many of these killings have been swept under the rug. Football coaches have remained largely silent, concerned about the resurgence of gang activity.
“The lack of jobs has pushed many youngsters into the arms of gangs,” says a senior football coach. “We have lost so many talented athletes,” he says. Major team sponsors, such as MCB and Habib Bank have pulled back their support. Others, including KESC and the water board have suspended their contracts with the athletes they once supported. “When you have a family to feed and no hope of finding another job, the allure of gangs where you stand to make Rs 1,000 per day, can be very powerful,” he says.
Sajid Ali, alias Sajid Color, a known footballer in Lyari who organised street football tournaments near Bezinjo Chowk, says footballers are provided with almost no opportunities by non-profit organisations or the government. “I organized a tournament for a fourth consecutive year,” he says, referring to the football match in 2013. “Over 25 kids were killed when the final match of my street football tournament was bombed,” says the footballer who plays for Karachi Momadan Football Club that was established in Lyari in 1946. The deadly bombing forced Sajid to put an end to his tournaments. “We gave money to the winning team because people in Lyari live below the poverty line,” he says. “Had we been born in the West, we would have been stars.”
The PPP claims to have provided plenty of jobs in Lyari, but a single visit to this poor neighbourhood paints a very different picture. There is evidence of neglect everywhere; from shoddy infrastructure, unhygienic conditions to inadequate educational facilities, and grinding poverty, there seems to be no end to Lyari’s problems.
Shah Mohammed, an elderly resident of Kalakot, puts it this way: “In the 1970s and 1980s, there was Sher Mohammed, alias Sherol, and Dad Mohammed, alias Dadul. It was followed by the 20-year rule of their son, Abdul Rehman, or Dacoit, who slaughtered over a hundred people. Later, Uzair and Baba Ladla took command. We have never lived a peaceful life.” He pauses, shrugs his shoulders and then adds, “All I can do is pray that our kids live in a better environment, one where people don’t bully or discriminate against them because of their cast or creed or where they come from.”
While this report was being compiled, an armed gangster injured a man in Sangu Lane. This goes to show how gangsters and drug peddlers backed by the powerful are still present in parts of Lyari. It is only a matter of time before they reconsolidate their positions and take the people of Lyari hostage again.