Even a hardened merchant seaman, who has seen his share of port cities, calls Kamchi frightening, comparing it to the anarchic city in the film Blade Runner, filled With dust, camels and gun-toting thugs.
Not so long ago, Karachi, Pakistan's sprawling commercial hub, was called the "City of Light." Its reputation as an exuberant port town was shattered in the seventies, however, when the late Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in an attempt to appease devout Muslims, clamped down on the sale of alcohol. Now only one bar in the entire city -- the American Club -- serves cocktails, and it requires membership for admission. When a longtime resident was asked to describe Karachi today, he didn't hesitate. "The City of Guns" he replied.
There is no question that guns figure prominently in the civic life of this overcrowded, lawless metropolis. Every morning, residents wake to news of further "encounters" between police and terrorists in the more squalid districts of the city. In 1995, more than 1,700 people were slain, including at least 160 police officers -- and this figure doesn't include the last two months of the year. "The terrible dehumanizing thing is that when violent death has the kind of ubiquity it has acquired in Karachi, it also becomes paradoxically remote and unreal," notes Rifaat Hamid Ghani, a political analyst for Dawn, the English-language daily.
In March, two U.S. diplomats were killed and another wounded in a shooting at a busy intersection. (One of them reportedly was a CIA agent.) While no attacks against Americans have occurred since, the State Department warns visitors not to rely upon police in the event of trouble, noting that Karachi cops often are the targets of crime themselves, and their low pay makes them easily corruptible. At night, drivers barrel through red lights -- not because they are scofflaws, but to elude robbers and hijackers lurking in ambush at intersections. Four-wheeldrive vehicles are especially coveted.
Much of the tension in Karachi stems from a festering dispute between the government and the Mohajir Quarni Movement, or MQM. The MQM claims -- with some justification -- that it represents the majority Mohajir community of Urdu-speaking immigrants from India, most of whom arrived in Karachi after the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. "What is happening in Karachi is a low-grade civil war," says A.K. Bazmi, a doctor who has worked at the Civil Hospital, where victims of the violence are brought every night. A wealthy Karachi businessman now living in the United States agrees, claiming that the situation here is even more dire than it was in Beirut before war broke out in 1975.
The Mohajirs composed only 3 percent of the population of Karachi in 1958. Nonetheless, says M.H. Askari, a political commentator, they managed to arouse resentment among the indigenous Sindhis, in part because the Mohajirs were perceived to exercise a disproportionate influence in government and business. The government hasn't takek a census of Karachi since 1981, presumably because it fears it would confirm the Mohajir majority.
MQM leaders, ensconced in exile in London, abandoned peaceful protest for violent insurgency at the beginning of this decade. As a result, the movement squandered considerable public sympathy -- until the government sent in the army to crack down on the rebels, a strategy that invited widespread abuse and indiscriminate torture and imprisonment. Although Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto returned the soldiers to their barracks, their place on the streets has been taken by an elite paramilitary unit. The result has been a resurgence of support for the MQM, which can bring the city to a standstill -- and has done so dozens of times -- with strikes and "black days."
But the deepening fissures in Karachi society -- indeed, throughout Pakistan -- can be ascribed more to overpopulation than the MQM rebellion. The country's population, 140 million, is growing at a rate of 4. …