By Suroosh Alvi
Photos by Jason Mojica

One of Pakistan’s famous decorative buses gets hit by one of Karachi’s infamous outbursts of violence. Photo by Zia Mazhar/Associated Press.  

Interviewing a “target killer” in Karachi was probably the scariest thing I’ve done in my 17 years at VICE. His gun sat between my feet in the backseat of our car as we drove in circles around his neighborhood. After our chat about killing people for a living, I felt like vomiting for three hours. I’ve been around my share of guns and violence, but sitting next to someone who has murdered 35 people (for between $550 and $1,100 per head) made me feel not so good.

So who hires these people? According to the hit man I interviewed, politicians contract about 80 percent of the assassinations in the region and the other 20 percent are related to organized crime. Twenty years ago, he said, there were a total of six guys in his profession. Today, there are more than 600 active target killers operating in Karachi. Indeed, many locals speculate that the famous Raymond Davis case—in which a CIA agent took out two armed men in Lahore last year and subsequently strained US-Pakistan diplomacy—was a failed target killing, not some random kids on motorcycles trying to rob him. 

Karachi has a rich history of violence, dating back to 1947, when Pakistan rose from the ashes of the British Empire. The massive influx of Muslim refugees into the new country brought turf wars, ethnic diversity (as well as ethnic tensions and rivalries), political warfare, gang violence, sectarian killings, and, in more recent years, suicide bombings.

When the Western media report on Pakistan, they generally focus on the “war on terror” and how awesome it’s going for America and NATO. We’ve all heard the stories of successful US drone attacks on Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants in tribal areas—and others of drones missing their targets and leveling entire villages of innocent women, children, and old people—but it seems the overall sentiment is that it’s cool because they’re faceless mountain people and we’re winning.

Getting rid of militant extremists is like trying to kill cockroaches—you stamp down on them but then they appear to the left and the right, and before you know it they’re everywhere. They have been forced to duck for cover in urban centers—in Karachi’s case, this means there’s a new gang in town, and they’re called the Taliban. Compounded with the baseline level of craziness, violence, gang wars, and poverty, this makes the city even more terrifying, especially after you meet the cops tasked with taking them on. The police force is completely overwhelmed and consists of a rag-tag group of underpaid and undertrained guys who are basically a third-world version of the Keystone Kops. We went on an “operation” with them, alongside every TV station from Karachi, and even though we were supposedly hunting Taliban in one of Karachi’s sketchiest enclaves, it felt like a film set or a scene from a low-budget version of Pakistani COPS. In fact, the situation was so absurd that our crew ended up on local media with accusations that we were CIA .

All signs point to a country that is ready to explode, and considering the reporting I’ve conducted here over the past seven years, it appears that Karachi may be the detonator. It’s the economic engine of the country, home to pockets of Westernized culture, a burgeoning fashion industry, tech start-ups, lots of rich people, and millions more who are suffering and destitute beyond belief. But it also contains one of the world’s largest slums and the biggest garbage dump on the planet, which young children comb for food and anything of value. The stench is unbearable, with smoldering garbage for as far as the eye can see. Heroin goes for about 80 cents a gram, hash is everywhere, corruption is endemic at all levels of society, and the availability of clean water and electricity is a major issue for pretty much everybody. More people die violent deaths in cosmopolitan Karachi than in the tribal areas, where there’s a “war” going on.

After spending five days surrounded by total lunacy and heavy vibes, my crew and I tried to seek out some normalcy. We just wanted to see some kids having fun—some small sign of hope. So we organized a little event with some Karachi kids active in the local art and music scene. We were going to call it VICE Kills Karachi, in the tradition of our epic “VICE Kills” events. But they suggested the inverse, Karachi Kills VICE, because “Karachi kills everything.”  


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