Lost in the city of lights: Afghan scavengers in Karachi crosshairs

The story of rag-pickers who migrated with dreams of a better life.

Afp August 03, 2012


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.

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 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, Quetta where the 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.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 3rd, 2012.