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In Pakistan, Stepped Up Security Seems To Calm Violence In Karachi


Not so long ago, the Pakistani port city of Karachi was known as a violent place - gang wars, the Taliban, and Sunni extremists targeting Shiites. But residents say increased security in the city over the past couple of years has helped calm things down, which means people feel better about going out to big events like the festival for the religious holiday Ashoura. Here's NPR's Diaa Hadid.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Karachi's a chaotic city of 16 million people.


HADID: But for two days, the city shuts down. Men and women march along a concourse that runs 9 miles long through central Karachi. They thump their chests and weep.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Sobbing, wailing).

HADID: They commemorate Ashoura. It's when Shiite Muslims mourn the slaying of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. His name was the Imam Hussein. He was killed in a battle in the seventh century alongside much of his extended family. That clash helped cement a divide in the early Muslim community between two groups who became known as Sunnis and Shiites.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting) Hussein, Hussein, Hussein...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

HADID: I met worshipper Syed Zafar Abbas. He points to the sky where birds flock overhead.

SYED ZAFAR ABBAS: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: And he says, "even they mourn the slaying of the Imam Hussein."

These kinds of gatherings were once deadly. One of the worst attacks was five years ago. More than 45 people were killed when a suicide bomber attacked a Shiite mosque. But things are changing.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

HADID: At the concourse, a provincial minister, Syeda Shehla Raza, oversees commemorations.

SYEDA SHEHLA RAZA: We can say that 15,000 people are on the security of the procession.

HADID: Raza nods to the paramilitary forces who patrol with assault rifles. And police roam on motorbikes. The whole concourse is cordoned off. This has encouraged worshippers to turn up in bigger numbers, like Iftikhar Ahmed.

IFTIKHAR AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: For years, his parents wouldn't let him come to these gatherings.

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken). Now I feel much safer.

HADID: Now, he volunteers at a blood donation tent on the concourse. As day turns to night, the mood shifts.


HADID: Worshippers pull back and form circles. Men enter the ring. They whip themselves with chains attached to knives. One man quickly turns bloody.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Shouting) Ya (ph) Hussein, ya Hussein. Ya Hussein...

HADID: It's to show their willingness to die for the prophet's family. Ashad Hassan looks on with his two boys. They're 4 and 7, and they carry little whips.

ASHAD HASSAN: For my kids (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Really, they will do it?

HASSAN: This is the first time they are doing it.

HADID: You're not worried about giving them basically whips with knives at the end?

HASSAN: These are not very sharp ones. So they'll do it one or two times, and that's it.

HADID: He says, if there's an attack, they'll be martyrs and go to heaven. Still, he's happy Karachi is safe now, he says. It's good to come and good to go home.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Karachi.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "PERFECT INSTANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid
Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.