Yesterday was one of the saddest days in Karachi’s history. Six of its downtown cinemas were attacked by mobs and set on fire. That’s pretty much the major ones completely destroyed. Only two big ones remain, one at the edge of downtown and one by the seaside.
The mobs, which were in the thousands, swept through the centre of the city on Friday setting banks, businesses and the cinemas on fire as part of protests against the Innocence of Muslims film. The pillaging and arson was condoned by our toothless and two-faced ‘religious’ leaders heading the protests. Whenever anarchists sweep through the crowd, these clerics disown them and have the gall to later say that the men were not part of their group but were ‘criminal elements’ as if this was a lesson from the periodic table.
The mobs wanted to storm the US consulate in Karachi, which was protected from all approaches by the police and strategically placed shipping containers. The protesters first swept through the main financial artery of Karachi, MA Jinnah Road, to converge at Native Jetty bridge which leads to the consulate. Along the way they ransacked the banks, kicked in windows, stole money, even food from the cinema’s bars.
In the morning as I turned on the TV the violence seemed to be mostly concentrated in Islamabad and Peshawar up north in Pakistan where cinemas were attacked as well. The government had made the mistake of caving in to the extremists and declaring Sept 21 Ishq-e-Rasool (pbuh) day, or Love for the Prophet (pbuh) Day. You see, in Pakistan we have to beat our breasts about these kind of things.
The government’s reasoning was that it would save itself by appearing religiously correct. What I don’t think it had bargained for was the protests that were planned. This was a failure of police intelligence. Also, since we only have about 3,000 cops we can actually use in Karachi of 20m people, they are stretched to thin. As far as I understand, via our reporter Saba Imtiaz, the police did not have orders to take action unless the US consulate was attacked. We’re trying to find out what exactly happened there and why the police did not have the kind of backup they needed from the paramilitary Rangers force who we pay billions of rupees to keep.
The irony is that we showed our love for Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) by setting our own city on fire. I’m sure he’s really happy and all the ‘criminal elements’ will get a special place in heaven for the great work they did.
The non-violent residents of Karachi watched on in dismay at the complete anarchy that descended on the city. We are a cursed metropolis, unable to get through any day without some kind of disaster. Just last week 289 garment factory workers perished in the worst fire in our history simply because the exit doors were sealed.
As the city editor of The Express Tribune, I’m supposed to know by now the way events will unfold in Karachi. But I confess, each day for the last month has stripped away my naiveté. I never thought it would get so bad and this happens to me each time. I’m never prepared to predict the extent of the depravity. I feel like a fool because I err on the side of the goodness of human nature. But as the footage rolled, I realised that there was no limit to the madness.
The same thing happened to me when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in 2007. All of us in the newsroom were unprepared for the fires that would sweep through the province. Each time I’m caught on the backfoot.
The neighbourhood where I live in is relatively protected but as I drove to work I had to pass through a shopping strip where tyres were burning on the road. A group of young men were gathered at the end. I had to somehow get through them by driving carefully around the scattered flames. “Stop her!” I heard one of them scream. “Get her!” cried another. I was wearing my press badge but I had a feeling it wouldn’t help. I rammed my foot against the accelerator.
My subeditors had a hard time getting to work as well. One of them found mobs around the office and turned back. He went home, changed into a shalwar kameez, grabbed a skull cap and pretend to be a protester to reach the office.
Before heading out to work, I had to raid my fridge to get food together as my subeditors at work messaged me that they were hungry and there wasn’t going to be any access to food that day. Plus I had reporters out in the field who I knew would return hungry.
So I’ve learnt my lesson and have decided to stock the office with food supplies. Petrol is another concern. In Karachi you can never let your tank be close to empty because what if you need to drive reporters or subeditors home?
Sometimes even water runs out at the coolers and you need to keep bottles in your car. I can only imagine it was much worse for newspaper offices that are located downtown.
But perhaps the worst part was that the government decided to suspend cell phone services on Friday. Two of my reporters were downtown covering rallies and protests and the cinema burnings. When we lost contact with Saad Hasan for an hour or so our hearts were in our mouths. All I could say to his wife, Rabia Ali, who is also my reporter, that he’s smart, he’ll always know what to do to protect himself.
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