By Rabia Ali
Seeing gangs battle against one another with heavy arms and the latest weapons in his neighborhood, 14-year-old Raza Baloch has grown to be infatuated with guns. On Eid-ul-Fitr, the boy and his friends pretended they were hardened criminals and spent all their Eidi to buy toy guns.
“There was a time when I would get very scared upon hearing gunshots but not any more. Firing is always going on in my area. I have become used to it,” said the fearless young resident of Lyari, confirming that the practice of buying toy guns has reached alarming heights in the violence-hit localities of the city where children have been exposed to the killings.
And this seems to be the horrific but logical consequence of the prevailing situation in large parts of Karachi. During the last several months, the city has been painted red as hundreds of innocent people have been shot, headless bodies found in gunny bags, and passengers been abducted from public buses because of their ethnicity. As violence seeps deeper into the society, it seems to be having a great impact on children who are not only becoming affected with what they see but are also forming opinions regarding the present situation.
A third grade student, Fouzan Ali, spends several hours of his day playing the shooter game Counter Strike in a bid to learn how to kill ‘bad people’. “Through this game, I am learning how to shoot. When I grow older, I will kill all the bad people in the city,” said the boy as sporadic firing rattled in his area of Gulistan-e-Jauhar.
As children find ways to deal with the madness in the city, there are some who wish to remain silent when being picked upon. Ethnic violence has seen a surge in recent months, which has promoted sentiments of ethnicity amongst children and they are now being bullied on the basis of being Sindhi, Punjabi, Pathan, Baloch or Urdu-speaking. A report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) states that four children were killed simply because of their ethnic backgrounds in the month of June alone.
Born into a Pakhtun family, Shahzaib is often bullied because of his ethnicity at school. “Some people in my school call me a ‘Taliban Pathan’. They also ask me if my father has a gun at home. I get so angry,” he complained.
And then there are some unfortunate ones who have become direct victims of the violence. Fifteen-year-old Rozmeen Barkat is lucky to be alive to tell her tale. This 10th grade student was caught in the crossfire between two political groups in June when she was going in a rickshaw along with her mother towards the Noorabad Jamaat Khana. “We didn’t know that there was firing going on. When we reached the area, a bullet pierced through my head. And I woke up in the hospital.”
The girl, who had planned to spend her vacations by learning how apply Mehndi and meet relatives ended up in bed for a month. “This should have not happened. I could have been killed. Why do they kill innocent people? I am scared to go out now.”
Fear has also gripped children living in those areas where violence and target killings seem appears to be less erupting. But nonetheless, the children are aware of the situation.
Eleven-year-old Usman Ghani, living in Defence Phase II, believes that that bloodshed in the city is being conducted by the Taliban. “I know they are behind all this. It is the Taliban who have come from Afghanistan and are ruining our country.”
Due to the security threat, Ghani’s school is surrounded by security guards and barbed wire, and every vehicle is thoroughly checked near the premises. “Initially, we were all scared that our school would be blown up. But I think nothing will happen. I don’t like it when there are strikes and there are killings going on, our schools are closed down, and our studies get disrupted.”
Then there are those who get upset when news of killings interrupts their favorite shows on TV. A young girl, Sarah Ahsan, gets annoyed whenever her father switches from her cartoon channel to a news channel. “We just have one television at home. And I don’t like it when the breaking news comes on and they tell us how many people have been killed. I get sad.”
Many young ones, like the politics-obsessed nation, have lost their trust in the mainstream parties. For instance, an eight grade student Hamza Saeed and his classmates prefer Imran Khan. “I like Imran Khan. He is good. I don’t believe in the rest. Similarly, I don’t have faith in the police. They act as if they are controlling the situation but in reality, they never do anything.”
For a solution, a 12-year-old Shah from Lyari has a solemn piece of advice. He believes that martial law should be imposed in the city. “Martial law is when the army takes over. Only they can ensure peace. The rest of the parties, such as the MQM and the PPP, will never stop fighting.” Aspiring to be a footballer, Shah says that he and his friends often pray in the mosque for peace in the city.
Similar is the message of peace which the gun-obsessed Raza has. Promising never to pick up real guns to commit violence, he says, “Sometimes Mohajirs are fighting, sometimes the Baloch are fighting. Everyone is fighting these days. But in the future I wish for a peaceful city,” he says. “We are all Pakistanis. Why should we fight?”
A case of denial
Asghar is four feet tall, wears an off-white shalwar kameez, and loves his pet chicken. He balances a yellow fertilizer pump on the right side of his waist, and rings the doorbell of a house with his free hand. In the neighbourhood he works in he is known for having a green thumb. “I have already grown bitter gourd, okra and tomatoes this year. Now I am growing sweet gourd,” he beams.
Unlike most 10-year-olds, however, Asghar has been closer to the bitter realities which come with life. The protected children in the affluent locality he works in will never witness what he sees every day. Asghar lives in Qasba Colony, an area now infamous for ethnic violence, and where residents claim that crossfire between rival groups occurs almost every day.
One day, as he was loitering around in his locality with a couple of friends, he witnessed the murder of a Pakhtun shoemaker. The victim was engrossed in his work in the corner he had occupied for the last 20 years, when four armed men arrived on the scene and shot him dead. “I stood there and saw him die. My friends stayed too,” he says. From what he describes the children never ran away from the crime scene. For them it was nothing out of the ordinary. “No I wasn’t scared,” he shrugs his tiny shoulders.
But his mother has a different story to tell. She thinks he is disturbed by the incident but still too young to understand what he felt. It took Asghar time to finally understand what had happened. After the death, he was quiet for a very long time. “When the funeral was conducted he kept telling me ‘Ammi I feel weird, Why did they kill him? Will they kill me as well?’ I told him to pray to God that they don’t”, his mother, who works as a domestic servant, says.
“That was the first time
Asghar realised the seriousness of the situation. These are kids you know,
they cannot comprehend the power of a bullet, until they see with their own
eyes the havoc it can create,” she says, shaking her head and the numerous
ear rings she wears.
One night his brother asked him to get grass for his donkey. He walked to a shop nearby, bought a green bundle, placed it on his head, and made his way home. Though he belonged to the Sindhi community, and often wore shalwar kameez , that day he was dressed in a pair of jeans. Midway he met a group of Pakhtun children, who verbally abused him, and yelled “Kill him he is a Mohajir”. Asghar was disturbed but he ignored them, when he encountered an older group of young boys. They began chasing him, and Asghar took refuge in an old man’s shop. “When he returned, he was shivering like a fish out of water,” his mother says.But Asghar refuses to admit the fear that had gripped him. “I was doing fine”.
In many lower income localities, young boys often grow into young men early, and in our society men cannot admit they are scared. Asghar seems to suffer from the same dilemma. Or the violence around has desensitised him to a large extent. He has accepted life as it is, and violence for him seems to be the order of the day.
“Things were not always like this, and I feel bad that people are being targeted for their ethnicities. I might get shot some day, but then everyone has to die, right?” he says in one breath.
Talking to this young boy, makes it hard to believe that he is the same boy whose eyes welled up with tears, when the family he works for jokingly told him that they will slaughter the goat he so painstakingly cared for this Eid; or the boy who bandaged his pet chicken’s leg when it was clucking with pain.