Life stopped for Pakistani cab driver Ghulam Mohammed when his seven-year-old daughter was shot dead on her way home from school, a victim of senseless political and ethnic violence sweeping Karachi.
Shumaila was Mohammed’s only child, born after he and his wife struggled for 12 years to have a baby. It took two stray bullets to bury all the hopes and dreams they had for the future.
“She was the one who gave meaning to our life. Now we have no reason to live,” said the tearful 36-year-old, a resident of Qasba Colony, one of a series of troubled neighborhoods in western Karachi turned into a battlefield.
Shumaila was one of 300 people whom the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said died in political and ethnically linked shootings in Karachi last month and one of the 800 killed since the start of this year.
She was carrying her books when the bullets pierced her abdomen and splintered a rib. Seriously wounded, she was eventually picked up by an ambulance after medics struggled to access the street under gunfire.
“Someone told me my daughter had been shot and I rushed to hospital despite all the risks, only to find her dead in the morgue,” Mohammed said.
Many link the killings to rising tensions between the Mohajirs, the Urdu-speaking majority represented by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and Pashtun migrants affiliated to the Awami National Party (ANP).
Karachi is Pakistan’s financial capital and, with a population of about 18 million, its largest city. Helped by its Arabian Sea port, industry in Karachi is thought to account for about a fifth of the country’s GDP.
However, authorities appear powerless to stop the bloodshed, human rights activists say, pointing out that most of the victims are innocent civilians.
“People have been killed because of their political affiliations, but it seems most are killed because of their ethnic background,” HRCP chairperson Zohra Yusuf said. “The majority of them are poor and destitute.”
Shumaila was Pashtun. Her father arrived in Karachi from the northwest 20 years ago looking for work and then settled down and got married.
Today the northwest is on the front line of bomb attacks linked to the Taliban and al-Qaeda and the migrant flow to Karachi is even greater.
Shumaila’s bereaved parents live on a congested street in a neighborhood of Urdu and Pashtun speakers, where trigger-happy gunmen from both sides can quickly reduce the area into a battlefield.
HRCP said Karachi suffers political, ethnic and sectarian “polarization.”
However, the government blames vague mafias involved in land grabbing and drug pushing for the killings, and for creating “misunderstandings” among political parties and ethnic hatred.
“It should not be called ethnic violence,” said Sharfuddin Memon, an official in the Home Ministry of the southern Sindh Province, of which Karachi is the capital.
“The mafias are killing people in such a manner that rival communities and parties are left with the impression of an ethnic war which is not there. The mafias do this to get stronger and weaken the writ of the state,” Memon said.
The Urdu-speaking family of Anwer Ali, 22, said he was walking to work when unknown gunmen shot him dead.
“He was the only bread earner for his mother and two sisters,” his cousin Mohsin Ali said.
The family rent a one-room house in a squatter settlement near the area of Katti Pahari, a flashpoint for the most recent violence, and are deeply frightened about the future.