Saturday, September 29, 2007

Karachi Security

I took the Independent to read on the flight to Karachi thinking an article about Angelina Jolie surely must distract me in a good way. Big mistake - as it described the background to her latest film, A Mighty Heart, which is all about the kidnap and murder of an American reporter in Pakistan.

No worries, I thought, he must have gone into the wild northern territories. But no - he was kidnapped and killed in Karachi, his body found in the city's outskirts.

Karachi is not an easy city to visit - in the flight there (and also back) I was the only westerner, and except for a few Americans at the hotel I saw no other during my stay. You have to be prepared to be stared at a lot.

The west is not that popular - traditionally Pakistan's number one enemy was India: recently this has changed, and now the USA is hated more.

Politics are in a state of flux, with President Musharraf in power after a military led coup (though elections are planned early in October) and despite that - or maybe because of it - fully supported by the USA.

He has become increasingly unpopular - to the extent that Bin Laden is now more popular than Washington's man.

Karachi has a history of violence and the Marriott I stayed in has suffered a number of car bombs. So to get in all cars must be searched by armed guards and visitors must pass through a metal detector at the front door.

So how safe is Karachi? There was one attempted suicide bombing during my stay near the Karachi Club which was about a block away. Maybe that's why Angelina never went to Karachi - the security fears meant her scenes were shot (in a film sense) in neighbouring India.

I wasn't too surprised to find that the driver my local fixer had arranged was armed "just in case". And on visiting the client's second office in a rather run down and to be honest rather dodgy part of the city we were met and escorted the last mile by an army jeep.

But ultimately when travelling to these places you are not relying on guns but on the people - I trusted my local agents and the driver they hired on my behalf.

Its a country on the edge in many ways - and it felt more risky than my trip in 2004, when Musharraf was much more popular.

I had a long think about this one day when in bed with a lurgy - but my conclusions might be controversial to some readers - something I've tried to avoid on this blog. So I'll leave those for another day.

But to conclude - the people I met, and knew from previous trips and meetings, my agent, his Karachi representative and family, the client and his team, were all very welcoming and helpful, and I hope they remain safe in what looks like being a turbulent time in Pakistan's history.

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