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Terrorized Residents Pray for Children’s Safety

October 11, 1995

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) _ Each morning before she sends her children off to school, Naila Khalid holds her Koran over their heads and whispers a prayer for their safe return.

A few weeks ago, Khalid said, a neighbor’s 5-year-old daughter was killed as she stepped out of her door. She gestures to an empty space at the far end of a narrow lane where another child fell victim to Karachi’s seemingly endless and random violence.

``All day we pray: Please God don’t let anything happen to them,″ she said. ``What kind of a future is there for these children?″

The terror that convulses this port city began several months ago when militants of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement stepped up a campaign of violence to press their demands for better representation in the government.

They say they are denied good jobs and access to better schools.

Some of the members of the MQM advocate a separate province for their people, Urdu-speaking Muslims from India who settled in Pakistan after the Asian subcontinent gained its independence from British rule in 1947.

Pakistan’s largest and most important financial city has become an urban nightmare. More than 1,500 people have died in ethnically motivated violence this year. Many of them are women and children.

MQM militants blame the killings on the government. The government blames the MQM.

In the middle are Karachi’s nearly 12 million residents.

In recent weeks the MQM has been warning that a civil war in Karachi is imminent, but Khalid said it’s already begun.

She lives in Nazimabad, the heartland of the Mohajir movement and perhaps the most violent neighborhood in Karachi.

As dusk approaches residents return to their homes, shopkeepers shutter their doors and bustling streets are quickly deserted.

At key intersections in Khalid’s neighborhood and on the rooftops of multi-story buildings, the government’s paramilitary Rangers crouch in sandbag bunkers.

Automatic rifles poke through barricades. Occasionally a helmeted head appears above the sandbags to survey the streets below.

Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Nasrullah Babaar, accuses the MQM leadership of fomenting violence in Karachi, harboring terrorists and advocating violence as a political tool.

But residents of Khalid’s neighborhood are loyal MQM supporters and most believe the Rangers and police are killing innocent people to discredit the MQM.

They accuse Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of using the police and Rangers to crush the MQM, the strongest political force and her only opposition in the city. They demand local elections, which were canceled by Ms. Bhutto in 1993.

Although there hasn’t been a census in Karachi in several decades, estimates say about three-quarters of Karachi’s 12 million people are Mohajirs.

In August the prime minister offered to hold municipal elections, which the mohajirs are sure to win, if there is a six-month cease-fire in Karachi.

In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press in Islamabad, Ms. Bhutto blamed the MQM for the economic decline of Karachi and the standard of living of the mohajirs.

``They don’t want development in Karachi,″ she said. ``They keep calling strikes so people shouldn’t be able to earn any money.″

In a small living room in Nazimabad several mohajirs gathered to talk to The Associated Press. They refused to be identified, too afraid, they said, that the police would track them down and kill them.

Their voices were hushed, and with each sudden noise the room quickly fell silent as someone went to see if the police were coming.

``The police say if you are Mohajir, you shouldn’t be alive. You should be dead,″ said a professor from a local college.

The soft-spoken matriarch of the clan gathered in the living room said her life had been reduced to sitting by the door waiting for her children to return.

``I don’t go out and if they are late I begin to tremble. I feel sick,″ she said.

She worries about the next generation of Mohajirs, with a literacy rate of about 90 percent unlike the national average of about 26 percent.

She says young Mohajirs are turning in their text books for guns.

``The police are killing Mohajirs like mice. The young boys feel that they are going to die so they may as well die for a cause,″ she said.

Mohajirs in some neighborhoods, particularly in central Karachi where Nazimabad is located and in eastern suburbs, have begun stockpiling food in anticipation of a prolonged battle between government and MQM.

Sixty-four-year-old Nasreen, who didn’t want her real name used, recalled the torturous trek to Pakistan she made with her family in 1947. She was barely 16 years old at the time.

Her three elder sisters died in the savage Hindu-Muslim riots that greeted the division of British India into independent India and the newly created Pakistan.

Sitting in her second-story apartment surrounded by her family _ afraid each time one leaves home _ she wonders at her decision to come here, at the decision to create a separate homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent.

``I think now maybe our elders made a mistake. Maybe we should not have created Pakistan,″ she said.

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