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A Karachi Crime Reporter’s Journey Through Gangland


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When I met Zille in 2015, he had been working as a crime reporter for over a decade and dissembling had become second nature. The job required it: he had to maintain good relationships with the police, with gangsters, with his own TV channel. His was dangerous work that involved angering powerful people. When he was reporting on screen, the truth was ostensibly the point. But Zille had also learned to self-​censor, to hedge around the subject, to avoid mentioning a specific party name. And off screen, where risks lurked at every corner, he took this further: holding back, contradicting himself, leaving some mystery about his family, his past or even his whereabouts. Perhaps it was a rational response to a high-​risk job.

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We met after nightfall, on a pleasant Karachi evening in springtime. I had just arrived from London to research a story on the city’s crime reporters and was groggy from the flight. Knowing that shadowing a crime reporter might be dangerous, I had opted not to stay with relatives, who would have concerns about my safety. Zille met me at my guest house, an unassuming building on a run-​down side street off a main road in the affluent district of Clifton. The guest house was unmarked and from the outside looked like another rich person’s house, protected by a low metal gate and a sleepy-​looking guard. Men sat outside on stools, chatting and spitting out rust-​coloured paan that resembled blood splatters on the unpaved street. After we had exchanged greetings, Zille darkly told me that I should move hotel. ‘This place is full of criminals,’ he said, and didn’t elaborate further. I didn’t sleep well that night.

Zille is a small man, very thin, with hooded eyes and a sharp gaze, constantly reaching for one of his two phones, lighting a cigarette, surveying his surroundings, or leaning sideways as if to avoid being seen. Over the next few days as I researched my story, I saw him only in the dark, on late-​night drives to meet police contacts, snatching meals at anonymous roadside stalls. I asked his age three times and received three different answers. He told me thirty-​two, thirty-​three and thirty-​eight, but when he gave me his birth year, it would have made him forty-​one.

On other points, he was more consistent. Zille said that he had become a crime reporter by accident.

***

The thing was, none of the options he could think of seemed that appealing: work in a bank, like his father; use his degree to start from scratch in engineering. When Zille tried to picture himself in any of these other, safer jobs, he saw a dull image in tones of grey, not the blaze of technicolour he was living in right now. Geo was one of the most popular channels in the country and it didn’t take long for people to get to know his face. The news was a national fixation and in Karachi, where violent clashes regularly shut down whole areas of the city, everyone was obsessed with the crime news in particular. Zille used to get a thrill from handing out his business card. Now people recognized him on the street or at parties. Sometimes he felt as if he was living a double life. He knew how much his parents worried, so he didn’t tell them about the most extreme incidents: getting roughed up on a shoot, the persistent threatening phone calls, the increasingly common occurrence of seeing dead bodies as the violence ramped up across the city. But it wasn’t always possible to keep a clear division, not least because his work was so public. His family congratulated him when he reported on a big story. They’d get phone calls from relatives who had seen him on Geo and everyone enjoyed the reflected glory. But at other times, when they saw him in his bulletproof vest, ducking for cover as gunfire sounded in the background, he would get back into the car to find twenty-​five missed calls from his parents. Sometimes he came home to find his mother praying for his safe return. His parents reminded him constantly that he shouldn’t take such risks. It was not simply that he was their only son; they were Shia Muslims and they worried that the very fact of being part of this religious minority made Zille more vulnerable now that he had such a public role. Shias made up a fifth of Pakistan’s population, but they were routinely discriminated against, passed over for jobs and were sometimes even the target of sectarian violence. He would appease his parents with promises, but by now he was addicted to the rush of reporting, the dash to the shootings, the scrabble for the best story and the best interview at the scene, the constant split-​second decisions to keep himself out of the firing line.

Before long Zille began to recognize the same faces at crime scenes. The moment he got a tip that something had happened—a shooting, a robbery, a political clash—he’d race across the city with his team, navigating gridlocked traffic and flyovers to get there fast. The aim was always to be the first on the scene, but that was easier said than done when everyone else was working with the same information and was equally keen to get the scoop. The dream was to forge such a good relationship with a police officer or gangster that they called you first. Zille pressed his card into the hands of anyone who would take it, telling police officers and gangsters alike to call him if they ever had a tip. The contacts were there for the taking, but every other journalist was hustling for them too. The media was a useful tool for police who wanted to show they were doing something, and for political parties who wanted to score points off their rivals. When Lyari was shut down by the turf wars between different gangsters, the top players—Rehman Dakait, Arshad Pappu—would call different TV stations to let them know when they’d bumped off an opponent. Keen for ratings, the channels broadcast it all.

Zille sometimes surprised himself with how untroubled he was by the residual violence of the stories he covered. When his car screeched up to a crime scene, the sulphurous smell of gunfire often hung in the air, or the cloying scent of blood. Victims of violence might be lying twisted on the floor, their faces frozen in anguish, until the Edhi ambulance drivers swooped in to take them away. The media industry had developed far too quickly to retrospectively impose ethical standards, and reporters did not recognize the necessity of giving space or privacy to injured people. The cameramen had the most arduous job, sometimes performing semi-​acrobatic movements to shove their camera into the back of an ambulance to grab a shot of the face of a prominent person who had been injured or killed.

These scenes were frenetic and adrenalin pumped around Zille’s body as he tried to make sure he was talking to the right people and getting the whole story. There was never time to dwell on how horrifying it was. Besides, there was almost always a throng of reporters crowded at the site of any explosion or shooting, a familiar crew that lent it the atmosphere of a staff room rather than a gruesome crime scene. The satellite vans bearing different channels’ logos would be queued up, the ones that had got there quickest parked right behind the police cars and Edhi ambulances that were always closest to the action. The reporters would hustle for the best spot, their cameramen jostling for the optimum lighting and view of the scene. Between live pieces to camera, the reporters and police officers swapped cigarettes and tips, the younger journalists listening out eagerly in case there was a lead they could pick up from someone more experienced.

As the months turned into years, Zille noticed more and more new vans lining up on the street and an increasing number of unfamiliar reporters. The proliferation of TV channels that had felt so exciting and full of opportunity when he started began to seem like a threat. Geo was the top-​rated news channel in Pakistan but, as the editors were constantly reminding reporters, that position could slip at any point. Zille enjoyed the feeling of superiority he got from no longer being one of the newbies, but he also felt a deep anxiety about being displaced. He was not yet one of the old guard, the really well-​established reporters who counted police officers among their best friends and were on first-​name terms with Lyari’s gang lords. In fact, he had never even been sent to cover Lyari – the story was judged too complicated, the area too dangerous for someone who didn’t have years of experience and contacts there. But he was no longer fresh blood. He was desperate to distinguish himself. He needed a break.

***

One sweltering day in August 2009, with monsoon clouds contributing to the oppressive humidity, Zille’s phone rang. It was one of the police contacts he had been carefully cultivating, someone so senior that he wouldn’t tell me who it was even years after the event. ‘Zille, I can give you a big story. Do you want it?’ the police officer said. Zille eagerly told him that he did. ‘OK,’ the officer replied. ‘You know Rehman Dakait?’ he said.

‘Yes, of course,’ said Zille. ‘Everyone knows him.’

‘We’ve got him. There’s going to be a big encounter. It’s going to start soon. We’re just finding the right place. Wait for an update.’

Everyone knew what an ‘encounter’ was: an extrajudicial killing. Usually, police officers would claim that they had been fired on and forced to kill the suspect in self-​defence. More often than not, this was untrue and they had actually embarked on the operation with the express intention of killing. Zille had some sympathy with this. After all, when criminals could bribe their way out of court and continue to run their drug-​smuggling rings from prison, many senior officers argued that they did not have a choice. Excitedly, Zille told his boss the news about the apparently exclusive scoop. His boss was dubious; there was no evidence yet. But Zille had a hunch that this was his moment, that for whatever reason the police contact had deliberately selected him to report on this story. He waited by the phone, pacing up and down. It was five hours before the officer called again.

‘It’s happened. He’s been killed with some friends. Get here with your cameraman.’

Zille immediately alerted the team at Geo, who ran a ticker along the bottom of the screen saying that there were reports that Rehman Dakait had been killed by police. The next hour passed in a blur as Zille rushed over there. Rehman had not been killed in Lyari, but in an industrial area called Bin Qasim. Zille pulled up and saw that a group of police and other people were gathered. It took a moment for him to notice the dead body on the ground, the pool of congealing blood. It was Rehman, already turning grey but otherwise a normal-​looking guy with an oval face and a bulbous nose; the same face that had been caught by a photo­grapher’s flash, with a harried expression, in a car next to Benazir Bhutto less than two years earlier. Zille knew he didn’t have long before the other reporters descended. Quickly, he began to talk into the microphone down the lens. It was his first big story. His break. He had arrived.

The days that followed were a hectic whirl of live broadcasts and hustling. It was a huge story, ratings gold—a gangster movie played out in real time on TV screens across the country. On this occasion Zille’s lack of experience in Lyari didn’t matter, because he had been there first. He went to Lyari every day, covering Rehman’s funeral and the reaction in the area. He interviewed relatives of Rehman and another gangster who had been killed in the same encounter. His phone rang again and again with requests from the Geo office. Now that Rehman was dead and buried, people wanted to know who would be the next kingpin of Lyari. Zille introduced himself to everyone—local police officers, high-​ and low-​ranking gangsters and their families, residents who came to loiter on the street and stare at the television cameras that had descended. It was the same approach he had honed over several years on the job. Hand out your card indiscriminately, ask people to give you their phone number and get them to take yours. ‘Contact me if anything is happening, if there’s any firing, if you hear a protest,’ he said, to one after the other. ‘You call me and I will give you full media coverage.’ He made promises with no idea if he could or would keep them. The only thing that mattered was the contacts—you never knew who was going to end up being useful to you. Sitting in the Geo office after the funeral, he looked through his phone at the numbers he had acquired the day before and called every gang member to ask if they knew who would be the next boss. Most stonewalled or were vague. It was hard to know whether they were being evasive because they had something to hide or because they simply didn’t know the answer. But Zille did not want to lose the story now.

Eventually someone had some information. ‘It’s not decided. Try again in two or three days,’ the gangster said, readying himself to hang up.

‘Give me some names,’ said Zille quickly, trying to keep him on the phone. ‘Just one or two names, anyone who is in the running.’

The gangster sounded impatient, but said, ‘Baba Ladla. Uzair Baloch.’ Then he hung up.

Zille alerted the news desk and they ran a ticker along the bottom of the screen on Geo straight away, keen to get the scoop out before someone else got hold of the same information: ‘The next sardar [leader] of Lyari will be Baba Ladla or Uzair Baloch.’

Of course, this wasn’t enough. ‘Go to Lyari,’ said Zille’s boss, the news editor. ‘Interview both these people.’

Zille got into his car and made his way through the clogged traffic of Chundrigar Road, the hectic throng of people and street hawkers that lined the streets of Saddar, towards the highway and Lyari’s yellow arches, its tangled web of alleys. On the way he called every new contact he could think of who might be able to orchestrate these interviews. Someone told him he should come to a particular house, deep inside Lyari, to meet Uzair Baloch, who was a cousin of Rehman’s. Zille drove straight there. When he arrived, he was ushered through to meet Uzair. He was surprised at how cultivated this supposed gangster was. He was sharply dressed and spoke Urdu well, with the polite manner and easy authority of someone well educated. Thinking of Rehman’s political ambitions, Zille had a gut feeling that the man in front of him was going to be the next leader. As they carried out the interview, another man arrived. He was short, with a flat, round face and a rough manner. It was Baba Ladla, the other man in the running.

Zille greeted him and asked, ‘Are you going to be the next sardar of Lyari?’

Baba Ladla shook his head. ‘No. Uzair bhai [brother] will be the next sardar.’

Zille called the office right away. The news went out that there was a new leader in Lyari. It was an unbelievable buzz. There was no way Zille was going to give up being a crime reporter now.

____________________________

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From KARACHI VICE: LIFE AND DEATH IN A DIVIDED CITY by Samira Shackle. Copyright © 2021 by Samira Shackle. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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Michael Neff
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