All’s Well

Dear Friends and Family,

Just to put everyone at ease, things appear to have returned to “normal” here in Karachi — for the most part. I say for the most part because I almost found myself in the middle of a shootout earlier today when I was out doing some shopping. Apparently a nearby jewelry store had just been held up, and the fleeing robbers started shooting at the security guards. The owner of the store I was in pulled the shutters down, and we waited for things to calm down. Thirty minutes later it was back to business as usual.

So, no worries. National elections have been postponed until mid-February, and all is well. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful emails.

A New Day

Dear Friends and Family,

I awoke this morning to a surprise: I had to push-start my uncle’s truck to get to the gym. Luckily, I got my cousin to help. We got the truck going and arrived at the gym to find, fortunately, that it was open. I expected this to be the most eventful part of my day. I was wrong.

I was jarred awake from my late-morning nap by the ringing of the telephone. It was my aunt, and she sounded agitated. Stores were shutting down again, she informed me, and there was gunfire in parts of the city. Apparently another politician — this time a representative of the MQM, the most popular party in Karachi — had been assassinated. This was bad news. As per Pakistani politics, when the party whose stronghold you’re in goes on strike, the place shuts down immediately and can stay shut for weeks. An aunt and I rushed to the nearby market to stock up on supplies and phone cards. Word had spread fast, and people were out in full force to replenish their supplies after three days of being holed up. Gas stations were closed again. Stores were shutting down even as we arrived at the market. News came eventually that the assassination was just a rumor; the politician spoke on live television to confirm that he was indeed alive. But the damage had been done. The news of his death was akin to yelling fire in a crowded theater. People’s nerves are shot, and they are prone to panicking at the slightest hint of trouble. There were reports that a bus was burned and that two rioters were shot dead in another part of the city. We got what we needed after checking out a few stores and returned home.

I ventured out with a cousin later in the day and though most stores were still closed, the panic seemed to have dissipated. Kids were out on the streets playing cricket. There were more cars on the roads, even a few buses. More Rangers appear to be patrolling the city, and the police presence has increased significantly as well.

Thus Karachi ushers in the New Year. A cacophony of gunshots exploded five minutes prior to midnight. It sounded like they came from every street. There were a few fireworks as well, but the gunshots far outnumbered them. It’s been a one-of-a-kind New Year’s for me, one that I will not soon forget.

I wish you a happy, memorable, and peaceful New Year. God bless.

Aftermath of Bhutto Assassination: Day 3

Today was the third and final day of national mourning for Benazir Bhutto. Most stores are still closed, and the ones that are open are running short on supplies. Fortunately, we have enough food supplies on hand for now, but without new phone cards to replenish our depleted prepaid phones, we have limited phone service. Buses are still not running. Gas stations are opening only for short intervals again, leading to long lines of cars and motorcycles. People are still fearful, and most are staying indoors. There are reports that some groups are still throwing rocks at vehicles and passersby in parts of the city. However, I didn’t see anything when I took a tour of the area earlier today. There is a certain calm on the roads that I think I will miss when the chaotic Karachi traffic kicks back into gear.

Thank you for keeping us in your thoughts and prayers.

Aftermath of Bhutto Assassination: Day 2

Dear Family and Friends,

Today, the second day of mourning for Benazir Bhutto, brought some encouraging signs of a return to normalcy. Buses are still not running, but there are more vehicles on the roads. The burned cars and trucks that blocked several roads are in the process of being removed.

Gas stations also opened up today, although only for a short time. I accompanied a neighbor to fill up his car and experienced firsthand the mad rush at the gas station as people scrambled to store up as much fuel as they were allowed. It occurred to me that such a scenario — long lines at gas stations for rationed fuel — strikes great fear in us Americans. We shudder at the thought that it could happen to us. I realize today that as unfortunate as such an incident is and would be, it’s not the end of the world. Life goes on.

Most stores are still closed. However, a few have opened under tight security while others have opened with their shutters half-way down, ready to close at the first sign of trouble.

There are policeman and Rangers posted around the city, and it is rumored that they have been authorized to shoot anyone causing trouble.

The general sentiment seems to be that we need to make the best of the current situation. Although there are signs of recovery, there exists an underlying fear that the situation can still get bad as we near elections, which are currently scheduled for January 8th. There is, however, discussion of postponing the elections, which seems like the right thing to do. Hopefully, the finger-pointing for the death of Benazir Bhutto won’t turn violent in the coming days.

All is well otherwise. Please don’t worry. I have no intention of leaving anytime soon; things really aren’t that bad.

Thank you for your emails and for your prayers.

Yours truly,
Khalid

Aftermath of Bhutto Assassination: Day 1

Dear Friends and Family,

Today was the first day of mourning for Benazir Bhutto here in Karachi. I set out with my uncle this morning to take a tour of the neighborhood and to see for myself the carnage we’ve been seeing on television. As expected, stores and offices are closed. There are burned cars and trucks blocking the roads. Patches of black soot mark areas where tires were burned last night. Large rocks, sticks, and tree branches — all used most likely to smash cars and pummel motorists — litter the roads. Gas stations are closed. Save for a random auto rickshaw or two, the roads are deserted of vehicles, when usually on a weekday like today there would be no end to them. Pedestrians can be seen making their way along the empty roads. There are no buses running, so those who were caught out of their homes last night will have to walk, or, if they’re lucky, hitchhike back. The latter is going to be difficult because 1) there are hardly any vehicles on the road and 2) there is a sense of deep fear and mistrust amongst the people; they’re not in a frame of mind to help each other.

Even as we heard news of buses being emptied and set on fire last night, there were reports that men on motorcycles took the opportunity to rob the hapless passengers of their money, jewelry, and cell phones. A cousin of mine was caught in another part of the city. He tried to return home only to have his way blocked by lines of burning cars and buses. In other areas traffic had come to a standstill. In the mass hysteria that followed the first sparks of chaos, people found themselves trapped on the roads without any law enforcement around to direct the flow of traffic. Those who could, holed up with friends, relatives, and even strangers wherever they could.

Today, there are reports of numerous deaths and millions of Rupees worth of damage in Karachi alone.

As shocked as the international community must be at these turn of events, the locals are just as much — if not more — appalled by what’s happening. How could the city change so drastically within a few hours?

It’s not clear who the perpetrators are or what their motive is. Who could possibly benefit from all this death and destruction? Is it really due to outrage over the assassination? Or is much of it the opportunistic settlement of personal enmities?

There’s a feeling of helplessness: There’s already been one tragedy — why prolong it by killing more innocent bystanders and by destroying the livelihood of others?

And there’s anger, too: Where are the police and the Rangers – those who have been sworn to protect the city’s residents?

Amid all this chaos, it’s the commoners who suffer. It is wedding season in Pakistan, and brides-to-be spent last night at beauty parlors, their weddings postponed indefinitely. For days people who don’t have supplies at home will have to scrounge for food because stores are closed. Auto rickshaw, taxi, and bus drivers — among others who survive on their day-to-day incomes — will be hard pressed to make ends meet.

At the moment, there is a profound silence outside as we wait — seemingly with collectively held breath — to see what tomorrow will bring.

Yours truly,
Khalid

Status Update

Dear Friends and Family,
Thank you for the outpour of support and for your prayers during this turbulent time. I’m happy to report that telephones are working again. It is rumored that the next three days will be official mourning days, as is standard. During this time offices and stores will be closed. Otherwise, all is well.

Best,
Khalid

Benazir Bhutto Assassinated!

Dear Family and Friends,

When I sent the update email earlier, I had no idea what was happening further north in Pakistan. As you may have heard by now, Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, was assassinated earlier this evening. Various groups have taken to the streets here in Karachi to protest the assassination. Their methods are often violent. A group of my relatives just came to stay with us because of the conditions on the roads. They report seeing burning cars and men with clubs attacking motorists. As I write this, I can hear gunshots. Most phones are dead. The power went out earlier, but fortunately, it is back again.

At the moment we are keeping indoors and waiting to see how things pan out. I expect that things will heat up in the next few days as various groups protest and strike. However, I don’t fear personal injury as I am safe with relatives. I will continue to update you if the internet connection stays.

All the best,
Khalid

In India

Dear Friends and Family,
It seems that time’s been picking up speed lately. The last time I emailed you, I had just arrived in Bulgaria. Since then I’ve spent five days in Istanbul, Turkey, made a pit stop in Doha, Qatar, and already been in Hyderabad, India for three days now. It’s been a whirlwind, and I’ve had an amazing time. Istanbul, just like I had been told, is a beautiful, charming city, and I regret that I wasn’t able to spend more time there. My visa for India was expiring so I didn’t get to stay as long as I would have liked. I certainly hope to return some day.

I made it to India to learn that my visa was expiring in two days. It turned out that the expiration date on my visa was not the last day of entry (as I had been lead to believe) but the last day of stay. Fortunately, an uncle who lives here helped me resolve the matter. After two days of stressful visits to various government offices and payments of several hefty fees, I’ve gotten a two week extension. It’s not as long as I would have liked, but it will have to do. So I’m here until the 15th of October when I fly out to Dubai for a short visit before heading to Pakistan.

So that’s the update for now. I’ve been working on the blog (albeit slowly) so check it out when you have some time. I plan to upload pictures soon. Please let me know if you have any tips/suggestions/advice either about India or Dubai.