Barkat Khan was shot dead as he slept, curled up in the muck in one of the roughest parts of Karachi, Pakistan. He was a dirt-poor 13-year-old Afghan who never went to school and never dared to dream of a better life.
Friends say he was an innocent victim of an increasingly vicious cycle of ethnic violence in Pakistan’s largest city, a battleground between economic migrants from the northwest and Afghanistan, and original settlers from India.
Barkat was one of more than 20,000 children — the vast majority of them Afghans — who work for US$2 a day collecting trash dumped by the 18 million residents of Karachi.
They toil from dawn to night, braving the punishing climate and health dangers posed by toxic waste. Now they are caught up in one of Pakistan’s most under-reported wars: the violence that tears neighborhoods of the country’s richest city to shreds, trampling underfoot the unknown and the defenseless.
“Karachi has become too dangerous. People are being killed indiscriminately, among them, my friend,” said Barkat’s friend, 12-year-old Jamali.
He and Barkat came to Pakistan as babies when their parents fled the city of Kandahar when US-led troops invaded Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US.
Like tens of thousands of Afghans, the family eventually moved to Karachi in search of work, abandoning their first port of call, the southwestern city of Quetta, where Taliban and their families are said to have settled.
Five years later, Barkat was dead. His parents are devastated by the loss of their only child.
Police say Barkat was an unwitting victim of ethnic and political violence that has reached record levels in Karachi, Pakistan’s economic powerhouse, which accounts for 42 percent of GDP.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says more than 1,100 people have been killed so far this year — the vast majority without any political affiliation whatsoever.
If the killings continue at the same pace, this year will top the 1,715 who perished the previous year, itself the worst death toll in 16 years.
The troubles are blamed on Mohajirs, Urdu speakers who migrated from India after Pakistan’s partition and who dominate the city, and on an influx of Pashtuns from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s northwest.
Migration and population growth have put enormous pressure on resources in the port city located on the Arabian Sea.
According to official figures, there are 500,000 Afghans in Karachi, 80 percent registered as refugees and the rest undocumented or illegal economic migrants.
The vast majority of them live in poverty in one of three ghettos reserved for Afghans in the city.
Karachi produces around 12,000 tonnes of waste a day and has no proper solid waste disposal system. Much of it goes into the drains or is dumped along roads or in the city.
Part of it ends up at government designated landfill sites, which seldom handle waste disposal on any scientific basis.
Contractors pay money to their parents every week, based on the weight of the trash they collect, and the children eat at restaurants and charities offering free meals, in order to save as much of their salaries as possible for their families.
The refuse is sold onto middlemen, who sell it to recycling factories — paper, cardboard, copper, iron, animal bones and other discarded articles are in high demand.
Officials say rag-pickers do a valuable job, which carries risks.
Rana Asif Habib, head of Initiator, a charity working for underprivileged children, said they handle hospital waste without the necessary protection kits, leading to contractions of diseases.
“They also get infected by eating food from the garbage. They can’t afford to see a doctor. If they want to, no state-run hospitals treat them well,” he said, adding “They are often antagonized by police and their employers, but they can’t complain because they are not Pakistanis.”
However, Jamali still thinks Karachi is better than Afghanistan.
“Karachi is very dangerous. Nobody knows when a bullet will hit, yet we have a lot more opportunities here. We are not going anywhere now,” Jamali said.
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