Karachi: The short queue outside a dispensary in the Sohrab Goth area of Pakistan’s mega-city Karachi hadn’t advanced for hours: the front door remained stubbornly shut, death threats having deterred staff from showing up for work several days previously.
“They are too scared to come and help us,” said Saleem Ahmed, one of those waiting in line, reports United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN).
The recent killing of several aid workers has left many projects with an uncertain future as humanitarians fear getting caught up in incessant sectarian, ethnic and political attacks in the city which killed around two thousand people last year.
One of those currently in crisis is the Bright Educational Society (BES), set up more than 17 years ago by Abdul Waheed, who was well-known and respected in the city’s humanitarian community.
The society runs a school in the Qasba Colony area of the city, and the small fees brought in by the 800 or so pupils helped fund other humanitarian activities, including the distribution of free medicines to the poor.
But less than a month ago, Waheed was shot dead in front of his young daughter and brother, close to the charity’s pharmacy.
His associates believe the attack was carried out by extremists opposed to his work for the education of girls.
The death of Waheed has, according to Syed Latif who is now running BES, created a situation where the organization is struggling to survive, with more than half of the pupils enrolled in the school having left it in the last month.
“We are just desperate for funds, so that we can keep the work going,” Latif told. “People who have been with us for many years are not getting paid, and there is a limit to how long we can carry on like this.”
The situation is not uncommon. According to Aimal Khattak, spokesman for the Islamabad-based National Humanitarian Network which brings together over 100 organizations working in the NGO sector across the country, the killing of aid workers creates three kinds of problems.
“In the first place, the organization suffers because of the fear that spreads, deterring employees from continuing with their work; in the second place, the loss of humanitarian workers leaves a vacuum. But, the most damaging effect of all is that donors are less willing to fund the affected organizations,” Khattak told.
Karachi, with a population of over 21 million people, has recently become a frontline for such murders.
In March this year Parveen Rehman, executive director of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), was killed by unknown gunmen.
Her death was considered a huge blow to efforts by the OPP to improve the quality of life for people living in one of the world’s largest slum areas – Orangi.
“The people who work for us are killed by those who oppose their efforts and do not want such things as the education of girls, or generally see these NGOs as being linked to the West,” Abdul Raees, a resident of the Lyari area of Karachi, whose daughters have attended an NGO-run school, told.
“They want to retain their own influence over various areas, so gangs of all kinds, political and religious, kill people who labour for ordinary deprived citizens.”
In March, Abdur Rasheed, head of an NGO-funded girl’s school in Baldia Ittehad Town in Karachi was killed in a grenade and gun attack.
“Rasheed, originally from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, was a good man. He wished to educate girls, especially those of Pakhtoon origin, and was devoted to this,” said a female teacher who worked at the school but did not wish to be named.
“We do not know why he was killed; whether it was because of his work or because of his affiliations with a political party, or because he refused to pay extortion money to a mafia involved in collecting it.”
She has since stopped going to work, saying her family was “too afraid”. Several pupils were also injured along with Rasheed.
In December, three separate gun attacks in Karachi on polio vaccination workers killed four women and injured two men, leading to the suspension of the campaign.
Such killings have a strong negative impact on the immediate targeted projects (often girls education or vaccination programs), and also create a wider sense of fear in the humanitarian community, aid workers say.
Fewer people are willing to offer their services, organizations face possible closure and as a result many are unable to access the humanitarian services people urgently need.
NGOs fear it may be impossible to work in areas of violence or to carry out effective monitoring themselves of the interventions made by those on the ground, says Khattak from the National Humanitarian Network. “This has been seen time and again.”