Monday, May 12, 2008

‘Bodies of victims lay unattended on road’

By S. Raza Hassan

KARACHI, May 11: It was around 10.30am on May 12, 2007, when I left my home for the airport. Listening to the news of the happenings in the city the night before, I was not sure how I would be able to reach the airport. As I stepped out of the house, I found the entire neighbourhood deserted: there was uncertainty in the air.

Coming from Gulshan-i-Iqbal, I first tried the airport route, which passes behind Gulistan-i-Jauhar. As I reached a spot near Pehlawan Goth, Rangers personnel stopped me on the outer cordon. Behind them, at a distance, a convoy comprising minibuses with youths sitting on the roofs holding flags of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement was visible.

Besides me there were employees of the airport who were arguing with the Rangers to allow them to pass, but some party activists who were standing along the Rangers were asking them to turn back. A Rangers official told me to use the Malir Cantonment route. Acting on his advice, I reached Malir Cantonment, but was also declined entry.

Finally, I came to main Rashid Minhas Road and reached the COD intersection at Sharea Faisal. Starting from Drigh Road, there were numerous buses and coaches parked with activists holding MQM flags and sitting on the roofs of the vehicles, while some roamed on motorcycles and on foot. Some cars and motorcyclists were seen using Rashid Minhas Road or the COD bridge from the wrong direction, ie entering the bridge from the ramp against the traffic. But there was no traffic. Resorting to this method, I descended from the bridge in front of the Drigh Road railway station.

However, the road ahead was packed with a rally comprising public transport vehicles and there was hardly any space to drive. Yet I managed to reach near the Natha Khan bridge.

At this point in time, I spotted a friend in a hi-roof belonging to a private television channel. Subsequently, I strategically placed my car behind the hi-roof, which was painted with the channel insignia.

We negotiated our way till the Shah Faisal Colony flyover and decided there we could not drive through Sharea Faisal as it was tightly packed further ahead.

In a desperate attempt, we drove up the flyover, but its exit was blocked by a water tanker with deflated tyres. Finally, we drove back on Sharea Faisal and parked our vehicles. Thankfully, a tanker driver guided us to an alternative road, which runs along Sharea Faisal through Shah Faisal Colony.

However, in order to reach the alternative road we had to pass through strict security checks where boys demanded our IDs. After crossing the security check and hitting the road, it felt like a major achievement.

We stopped for a brief period at the Falak Naz apartments, where a number of people belonging to the area were standing complaining to some media-persons about the blockade of the main thoroughfare by MQM activists.

At Malir 15 we saw a People’s Party welcome camp. From there we reached Malir Halt intersection and took the Security Printing Press Road (Cantt Road), feeling that finally, we had made it to the airport.

However, at the tri-road intersection where the Model Colony graveyard is located, there was another blockade. Minibuses were parked in such a manner that even a person on foot could hardly pass through. The intersection was being guarded by activists of the MQM holding party flags.

We decided to park our vehicles close to the pavement and walk to the airport. Luckily, two activists offered us a lift on their motorcycles, which we happily accepted. On our way to the terminal, I saw some passengers walking holding their luggage.

Show of strength

As I approached the airport, I witnessed a rare sight: a seemingly unending queue of Rangers were standing as if they were guarding a nuclear installation or the Pakistan-India border. We could not stop ourselves from criticising them and making sarcastic remarks after passing through the seemingly impossible barrier. I wondered what they (the Rangers) were actually guarding and from whom?

Our arrival at the airport coincided with the landing of deposed chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry’s plane. The news of his landing spread like wild fire and questions arose about what would happen next.

Soon after the CJ’s plane had landed, there was sheer excitement in the media ranks about what would be his move, as none of his associates in the legal fraternity were able to reach the airport due to the siege-like situation in the city.

‘Biryani and water bottles’

However, the apparently impregnable wall of Rangers posted at the entry and exit of the airport premises was soft enough to allow a small rally of MQM workers through.

The workers started chanting slogans against the lawyers and the deposed CJ. They kept on chanting slogans at the domestic arrivals and departures area till they got exhausted. Later, they were provided biryani and water bottles. After being sufficiently nourished, they resumed their job.

Meanwhile, the nearby crackle of gunfire reached the airport. As I climbed to the first floor, I could see black smoke billowing from Drigh Road. Soon enough, smoke started to rise opposite the airport terminal in front of the Falak Naz apartments and at different spots all along the stretch of the road from the airport towards Malir 15.

Intermittent sounds of gunfire reached us loud and clear. Soon, there was news that bodies were lying on the road at Malir Halt and Security Printing Press Road.

As I was in contact with my workplace, I was asked to try to head to the office. I left another Dawn reporter at the airport. A fellow reporter gave me a ride on his motorcycle to the spot where I had left my vehicle.

As I was about to get into my car, I noticed a teenager holding a pistol in his hand. Another man was holding a repeater gun and seemed quite hyper. However, they spared us and didn’t ask any questions.

As my other reporter friend was also following me, we soon reached the Malir Halt intersection. We decided to park our vehicles in the narrow streets and walked up to the intersection.

As we entered the streets, I saw an injured man, who was bleeding, being consoled by the area residents, who were trying to tend to his wounds.

Meanwhile, an ambulance belonging to the Khidmat-i-Khalq Foundation was seen in the narrow lanes. To my utter shock, the ambulance was full of injured persons; they also took the injured man I had seen earlier and sped away.

Tension in the air

After witnessing the ambulance scene, we walked up to the Malir Halt signal at Sharea Faisal. But there was tension in the air, as smoke billowed from two vehicles. Ironically, a plastic banner, inscribed with welcome slogans for the deposed chief justice, was lying on the road.

We saw a police mobile approaching and as we walked close to it, we saw that it contained several bodies. It was a horrific sight.

Soon, some activists appeared on main Sharea Faisal, along with a few policemen in civvies, holding weapons. Among them were the SHOs of Khokhrapar and Malir City, wearing bullet-proof jackets, along with the sector in-charge of the area.

They did not appear to be perturbed or tense, but looked quite calm, as if nothing extraordinary had happened.

As I stood at the same intersection, I saw a small convoy of Sindh Rangers head for the Security Printing press Road. A little later the same convoy returned, escorting the minibuses and vehicles which were used to block the airport approach road from Cantt Road.

It was only later that I learnt I was standing at the same spot where four to five persons were shot dead. The bodies and the car they were in had been removed when I reached the spot.

All the bodies collected by the police were dumped at a spot and later, ambulances shifted the bodies to hospitals.

I went back to the airport, but this time the blockade had been lifted. It was around 5pm when I came to main Sharea Faisal from the airport and drove up to Drigh Road. The stretch of road from the airport to Drigh Road was completely deserted.

At the Natha Khan bridge I witnessed buses carrying activists holding MQM flags slowly driving back towards the downtown area.

A reporter friend advised me on the cellphone not to come from the FTC, as there were reports of firing there.

Subsequently, I turned to Bahadurabad to pick up an associate and headed back to the Baloch Colony bridge. As I approached the PAF chapter of the City School, I saw that the road leading to the DHA was blocked by a deflated trailer.

At that point a white car with no silencer and dark black glasses appeared and crossed us. It was quite a fright as we expected a burst of bullets from the car. Fortunately, that did not happen.

I drove on the wrong track of the expressway and finally reached the office at around 5:30pm.

Perhaps the most shocking scenes of May 12 I witnessed were of the several dozen wounded people who were injured in the firing at Sharea Faisal, Malir 15 and Malir Halt, who later succumbed to their wounds on the main road. Their bodies lay unattended for several hours on the city’s main thoroughfare as death kept dancing.

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