Children caught in ethnic violence


Karachi is one of the largest cities in the world and in recent months has become one of the deadliest. Hundreds of people have been killed in ethnic clashes. Earlier this summer bloodshed came suddenly to Qasba Colony – a densely packed area in the west of Karachi. The violence has persisted and things are tense when we visit.
We are here to see two families who live just a few hundred metres apart. The family of one girl, Yumna, who is 13, lives at the bottom of the steep hill that dominates Qasba. The family of another, six-year-old Laiba, lives at the very top.
But while you can clearly see one home from the other, you can no longer walk directly between the two.
The deserted main road that bisects the route has become a new front line. Snipers are still operating and scores of bullet holes all over buildings near the road are a warning not to cross.
Yumna’s family, like most of those living in the sprawling expanse at the bottom of the hill, is “Urdu-speaking”; a term given to those Muslims who chose to come over to Pakistan from India at partition more than 60 years ago.
Yumna’s great-grandparents migrated from Calcutta. For decades, the Urdu-speaking community has been the majority in Karachi, and the most powerful politically.
Little Laiba’s family though, like almost all of those who live on the slopes of the hill, are ethnic Pashtuns originally from north-west Pakistan.
FLEEING CONFLICT: Twenty years ago, Laiba’s grandparents moved here from the Swat Valley to seek economic opportunities. More recently, Pashtuns have been coming here in huge numbers to escape the fighting between Pakistani forces and the Taliban.
Some estimates now put the Pashtun population in Karachi at as much as five or six million; a demographic and ultimately political rival to the Urdu-speaking people in a city of 15 million people.
When latent ethnic tensions between these two groups erupted just weeks ago, the entire city was plunged into turmoil. Shopkeepers were shot dead, rickshaw drivers abducted and tortured and bus passengers sprayed with bullets, purely because of their ethnicity. Qasba Colony became just one of many battlegrounds.
Speaking softly and with fear still clearly in her eyes, Yumna describes how she and her family were trapped in their home for days during one particularly heavy spell of fighting.
She tells of hearing bullets graze the walls and hit the water tank as Pashtun gunmen on the hill traded fire with Urdu-speaking people in her part of Qasba. Yumna says it finally got so bad she tried to take her younger brother and sister and make a dash to her uncle’s house, in a safer area.
SNIPER FIRE: She describes how they crouched behind the walls of the house, waiting for a lull in the fighting. Then, when it came, how her brother and sister ran across the alleyway to hide behind the buildings on the other side. Yumna tried to do the same but as she ran she fell to the ground. She had been shot in the legs by a Pashtun sniper.
She recalls how neighbours tried to help but that they too came under gunfire, and how she was eventually carried through the back streets to the hospital. She is now back at home, lying on her bed, her legs heavily strapped. But it was just as bad for the Pashtuns up the hill.
Laiba’s best friend tells us how, because of all the shooting, they had also been confined to their homes.
She says the girls missed playing their favourite game in the street, chindro, which is a bit like hopscotch. They made do with playing with dolls inside, but were scared by the noise.
During a quiet time, Laiba did go outside for a while. She was climbing the stairs to go back into her house when she too was shot, twice, by a gunman from the Urdu-speaking area below.
One bullet all but tore off her tiny arm, the other pierced her chest.
POLITICAL BATTLE: Laiba’s father can barely bring himself to tell us how he rushed outside to find his only child covered in blood, how he ran down the hill in tears with her body in his arms and how Laiba took her last breath in the rickshaw as they tried to get to hospital.
Neither Laiba’s father nor Yumna’s say they understand why the fighting has started now.  
But both the Pashtuns on the hill and the Urdu speakers below now talk about their rival community using almost exactly the same demonising terms. They claim the other is more immoral, more heavily armed, more barbaric. They are talking about their former neighbours, often their old friends.
Ultimately there is one thing they agree on. They say this is a power battle that has been instigated by politicians who claim to represent them but that it is they, and their children, who are paying the price.