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Footprints: City of elusive peace

Footprints: City of elusive peace

WHAT has changed in four years in Karachi, words may fall short in explaining. But sitting at Café Aao Jee along a busy intersection of the densely populated North Karachi neighbourhood on a breezy evening, this difference is palpably felt.

Amidst the rattling of teacups and the bustle of busy waiters and tea aficionados — mostly youngsters — I can hear traffic moving on the main road. I was last here in August 2012, almost at the same time of day. How was it then? A few facts may help establish the point.

A little more than four years ago on the evening of August 19, I was at the same place. The ground on the main road along the tea shop bore sticky stains of blood; there was deadly silence and deep fear hung in the air. It was the day after five young men had been killed in a brazen armed attack on the hotel during the spell of violence that Karachi had been seeing almost every day on sectarian, ethnic and political agendas.

Every part of the security apparatus — these days operating so proactively — was available at that time too. Yet the city was held hostage by fear, violence and murder that occurred every few days. The government’s concerns and political parties’ resolve were seen only on news channels during talk shows. Café Aao Jee was one of several roadside teashops in Karachi that fell victim to the violence, its disappearance going unremarked amid the loss of lives.

“We opened it again only two months ago,” says Mohammad Shafiq, the new owner. “After that attack, the owner closed the shop and left. But for where? No one knows. I don’t have exact information about that incident but people say that it was a killing on sectarian grounds. Amongst the victims were a seminary student and a moazzin [prayer leader]. When I got to this place, there were still stains of blood on the floor. No one came here after that incident except for the police a few times.”

Abdul Baqi, the neighbour, endorses Shafiq’s thoughts. The septuagenarian saw the bodies on the ground when he came out of his home after hearing gunshots so close to his residence. For the next four years, the street he lives in was deserted and the teashop became a haunted place. “Even I tried to avoid this route,” he says. “It’s good to see the teashop open again and thank goodness, the situation is much better.”

Café Aao Jee is not the only one to have come to life again in recent days. Many teashops that were closed during the five-year spell of violence in the city have started opening again.

Café Sanwal in the Saudabad area of Malir, Hotel Habib Chaman in Block 18 of Gulistan-i-Jauhar, Sagheer Ki Chai in Shah Faisal Colony and a teashop named Quetta Town near Babar Market in Landhi are just a few that fell prey to bloodshed. They all were attacked and their owners subsequently closed down their businesses. All of them have reopened in recent months.

“I saw two people shot dead at my hotel while they were having tea,” says Habibullah of Hotel Habib Chaman. “It was 2010. The firing also left injured my nephew who worked as a waiter here. The very next day, I decided to wrap up the business and leave for my town in Chaman. My relatives and other members of the community preferred to stay here for their businesses, but I couldn’t.”

Habibullah decided to return to Karachi this July on the advice of his friends in the city. Fortunately, his old space was still available. He says he is happy to be back in “peaceful” Karachi which he explains was “bleeding” a few years ago.

By and large, the city is at peace these days. The operation launched in September 2013 has not only completed its three years but also made inroads in those pockets of the city were once called “no-go areas.” But after years of the Rangers-led exercise, thousands of arrests and hundreds of fatal ‘encounters’, Habibullah — like other Karachiites — still lacks the confidence to call the city safe.

I tried to trace out the reasons behind this scepticism and residents’ sometimes pessimistic approach to a lasting peace in this beleaguered city. On the main road from Shafiq Mor to Godhra Colony right outside Jamia Masjid Aqsa, the shutters of shops and businesses were down.

“Yesterday [Friday], three men were killed here on this road during firing in broad daylight. How can you expect routine business in such situation?” says Usman Khan, a vendor waiting to open his shop. Khan opened his shop in the evening but is fearful. This is, after all, a city that has witnessed more violence than peace during the past three decades.

“That petrol pump did not open today,” he said, in the evening when life was returning to the neighbourhood after an almost two-day suspension. “No one knows when the violence will end once and for all. This city is quite strange. Only uncertainty is permanent here.”

Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2016

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