KARACHI – Barkat Khan was shot dead as he slept, curled up in the muck in one of the roughest parts of Karachi. He was a dirt-poor 13-year-old Afghan who never went to school and never dared to dream of a better life.
Friends say he was an innocent victim of an increasingly vicious cycle of ethnic violence in Pakistan’s largest city, a battleground between economic migrants from the northwest and Afghanistan, and original settlers from India.
Barkat was one of more than 20,000 children — the vast majority of them Afghans — who work for $2 a day, collecting rubbish dumped by the 18 million residents of Karachi.
They toil from dawn to night, braving the punishing summer climate and health dangers posed by toxic waste. Without passports and legal status, they have little protection.
And now they are caught up in one of Pakistan’s most under-reported wars: the violence that tears neighbourhoods of the country’s richest city to shreds, trampling underfoot the unknown and the defenceless.
“Karachi has become too dangerous. People are being killed indiscriminately, among them, my friend,” said a mournful 12-year-old Jamali, picking up a soggy piece of cardboard.
He and Barkat came to Pakistan as babies when their parents fled the southern city of Kandahar when US-led troops invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.
Like tens of thousands of Afghans, the family eventually moved to Karachi in search of work, abandoning their first port of call, the southwestern city of Quetta where Taliban and their families are said to have settled.
“Barkat started collecting garbage right after arriving in Karachi, along with his father. Our families lived together for some time,” said Jamali.
Five years later, Barkat was dead, shot in May at point blank range as he slept outside a food stall that offers free dinners to Karachi’s poorest. His parents are devastated by the loss of their only child.
“Barkat was a lovable boy, very hardworking, who wanted to earn a lot of money to see his parents happy, especially his mother who is shattered after his death,” said his cousin, Mohammad Mukhtar, 19, who also collects rubbish.
“Relatives told me that she hasn’t yet recovered from the shock.”
Police say Barkat was an unwitting victim of ethnic and political violence that has reached record levels in Karachi, Pakistan’s economic powerhouse, which accounts for 42 percent of GDP.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says more than 1,100 people have been killed so far this year — the vast majority without any political affiliation whatsoever.
If the killings continue at the same pace, 2012 will top the 1,715 who perished last year, itself the worst death toll in 16 years.
The troubles are blamed on Mohajirs, Urdu speakers who migrated from India after partition and who dominate the city, and an influx of Pashtuns from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s northwest.
Migration and population growth have put enormous pressure on resources in the Arabian Sea port city, where the economy has been under serious pressure since 9/11.
The Mohajirs are represented by the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), led by Altaf Hussain, who exiled himself to Britain in 1992 over threats to his life.
It has 52 seats in the Sindh provincial assembly, while the secular Awami National Party (ANP), the leading Pashtun representation in Karachi, has two seats.
According to official figures, there are 500,000 Afghans in the city, 80 percent registered as refugees and the rest undocumented or illegal economic migrants.
The vast majority of them live in poverty, like Jamali who lives in Koochi, one of three ghettos reserved for Afghans in the city.
His family live near the neighbourhood where a UN doctor from Ghana was shot while working on a polio vaccination programme that had been condemned by the Taliban.
But the rag-pickers live at around 400 compounds dotted around the city, divided by bamboo into dozens of cubicles shaded from the sun by polythene sheets.
Each cubicle is shared by two to three, who pile up plastic bags stuffed with waste to snatch a few hours’ sleep, before rising at dawn to start again.
Karachi produces around 12,000 tons of waste a day and has no proper solid waste disposal system. Much of it goes into the drains or is dumped along roads or across the city.
Part of it ends up at government designated landfill sites, which seldom handle waste disposal on any scientific basis.
Contractors pay money to their parents every week, based on the weight of the rubbish they collect, and the children eat at restaurants and charities offering free meals, in order to save as much of their salaries as possible for their families.
The refuse is sold onto middlemen, who sell it to recycling factories — paper, cardboard, copper, iron, animal bones and other discarded articles are all in high demand.
Officials say rag-pickers do a valuable job, but that there are risks involved.
Rana Asif Habib, head of Initiator, a charity working for underprivileged children, says they handle hospital waste without the necessary protection kits, leading to contractions of diseases such as hepatitis and scabies.
“They also get infected by eating food from the garbage. They can’t afford to see a doctor. If they want to, no state-run hospitals treat them well.”
Afghans are particularly vulnerable, he added.
“They are often antagonised by police and their employers, but they can’t complain because they are not Pakistanis.”
Despite the dangers, Jamali still thinks Karachi is better than Afghanistan.
“Karachi is very dangerous. Nobody knows when a bullet will hit, yet we have a lot more opportunities here. We are not going anywhere now.”