Karachi’s Unknown Dead

lawarisEach year, approximately 3000 unidentified corpses are found on the streets of Karachi, an ever-expanding mega-city in southern Pakistan. Sometimes they are drug addicts or migrant workers who came to the big city in search of a better life; sometimes they are the victims of the sectarian clashes or gang violence that give Karachi its reputation for violence. In this tightly packed city of over 21 million people, some get lost amongst the heaving mass of brick and bodies, ending up destitute and alone. They are lawaris: without an owner.

My first documentary project focuses on the people who care for these unidentified dead bodies, trying their best to find their families and restore dignity in death. I co-produced the film, along with my friend and frequent collaborator Haya Fatima Iqbal, and it was directed by my partner Owen Kean. The film was made possible by a grant from ScreenCraft and BondIt Media, and it was subsequently acquired by Vice.

The film aired on Vice back in August 2019, and astonishingly, it has since been watched almost half a million times on YouTube. It’s shortlisted for a One World Media Award.

You can watch the whole thing here:

Recent writing

bahria town
Bahria Town Karachi

In 2019, I broke my foot and wrote a book – which is one way of saying that the year has passed in a bit of a blur. Here are links to some shorter bits of reporting and opinion writing that I didn’t get the chance to share here earlier.

This is just a selection – if you’re interested, you can see all my pieces for Al Jazeera English here, and all my pieces for the Guardian here

Historical war crimes: an amnesty for British soldiers? (Guardian)

In May, as government investigations into British soldiers hit the headlines again, I went on the Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast to talk about my 2018 investigation into the Iraq Historic Allegations Team.

British schools should teach migration and empire: Runnymede (Al Jazeera English)

This news feature focuses on calls to amend the British school curriculum so that empire and migration are taught to all students.

‘Inspired by Central Park’: the new city for a million outside Karachi (Guardian)

This feature for Guardian Cities drew on material from my forthcoming book, about the massive Bahria Town development at the outskirts of Karachi, and the devastating impact on local villagers.

Young Palestinian musicians challenge ‘system of oppression’ (Al Jazeera English)

I loved writing this piece for AJE about the Palestine Youth Orchestra, as its European tour got underway.

Roma Holocaust: Amid rising hate, ‘forgotten’ victims remembered (Al Jazeera English)

Pegged to an exhibition in London, this piece looked at the heavy toll borne by Europe’s Roma community during the Holocaust – and the ongoing implications of this hatred.

The first Pakistani Nobel laureate few have heard of (Al Jazeera English)

Scientist Abdus Salam has been largely ignored in Pakistan because he was an Ahmadi Muslim. I wrote about a new film aiming to restore his legacy.

It’s shameful that Johnson has reneged on the inquiry into Tory Islamophobia (Guardian)

Written soon after December’s general election, this comment piece looks at the devastating and pervasive impact of Islamophobia.

Student mental health

guardianAnxiety and stress amongst students in British universities is sky-rocketing. In a piece for the Guardian Long Read, I looked at why this might be. I interviewed students and staff at Brunel University on the outskirts of London, as well as to people around the country. The piece sets these personal experiences against changes to funding models in higher education and cuts to mental health and support services.

“One of the most worrying phenomena that many of us have witnessed in recent years is the rise of chronic anxiety, that afflicts some students so deeply that they feel unable to come to the campus at all,” says William Davies, lecturer at Goldsmiths and author of The Happiness Industry, a book about the commercialisation of wellbeing. “Above all, a growing proportion just seem terrified of failure, and experience the whole process of learning and assessment as an unforgiving ordeal that offers no room for creativity or mistakes.”

You can read the full story over at the Guardian, where an audio version is also available.

Saving mothers


235_WOMAN_TRIAL_LABOUR-ROOM-15
Photograph by Saiyna Bashir

Postpartum haemorrhage is the leading cause of maternal death worldwide, responsible for around 100,000 deaths every year. While around 6 per cent of women giving birth all over the world – in rich and poor countries alike – develop postpartum haemorrhage, 99 per cent of deaths from it occur in low- and middle-income countries. A recent clinical trial found that a cheap, out of patent drug – tranexamic acid – is hugely effective in reducing these deaths. But in many of the countries that need it most, it isn’t always easily available.

In a reported story for Mosaic, I travelled to Pakistan and Nigeria to explore what comes next after a successful clinical trial, and to look in depth at the fightback against high maternal mortality rates.

When the trial results came out in April 2017, the doctors who had worked on it in Pakistan were jubilant. Tranexamic acid, which stops blood clots from breaking down, works in a totally different way from other drug treatments for postpartum haemorrhage, which mainly focus on helping the uterus to contract. “If the patient has had the uterotonic drugs and needs two transfusions, the addition of tranexamic acid means the need for blood transfusions is reduced, as is the need for surgery,” explains Khan. “It’s easily available, cheap, very effective. It’s a magic drug.”

You can read the rest of the story at Mosaic.

Facebook blackmail

image3-7-1550596608
Nighat Dad, founder of Digital Rights Foundation

Gender-based harassment can look extremely different in different parts of the world, posing a conundrum for global social media companies: what might look like a totally mundane image to a western viewer could be scandalous in a more conservative context, if it reveals evidence of a pre-marital relationship.

I explored the issue of social media harassment and blackmail in Pakistan in a story for Elle magazine.

When we hear the words ‘revenge porn’, we typically think of sexually explicit images, but in a context like Pakistan, even non-explicit images can have a devastating impact. A 2017 study found that 70% of Pakistani women were afraid of posting or sharing photographs of themselves online in case the pictures were misused.

First, Asad messaged Fatima’s sister on Facebook, trying to coerce Fatima into resuming contact. Then he threatened Fatima, telling her he would share the photographs he had of them together. He carried through, contacting her father and her brother via Facebook and WhatsApp.

The reporting for this story was supported by a media fellowship with Columbia University’s Centre for the Study of Social Difference. The programme, titled Religion and the Global Reframing of Gender Violence, aims to question dominant narratives about gender based violence, with a focus on the Middle East and South Asia. I was also a media fellow on the programme last year (you can see some of the reporting I did here).

Pakistani politics

manzoor.png
Manzoor Pashteen, leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement

I’ve been going back and forth to Pakistan a lot this year as I research for my forthcoming book, Karachi Vice, and work on other projects, including my first documentary film (details to come!). It has been a tumultuous period in Pakistani politics, with July’s election putting Imran Khan in power, amid a widespread crackdown on free expression. I’ve written various articles on these subjects over the course of the year, ranging from opinion pieces to more in-depth reported stories. Here are some links:

Under the watchful eye of the army (Index on Censorship)

This reported piece for Index on Censorship’s July 2018 issue (behind a paywall) looks at the drastic ramping up of restrictions on free speech in Pakistan.

Imran Khan has won over Pakistan, but the real power still lies with the army (Guardian)

This comment piece, written the day after July’s election, looks ahead to Imran Khan’s premiership and notes the role of the military in the election.

Imran Khan’s treatment of Asia Bibi is a dangerous betrayal (Guardian)

This comment piece looks at the plight of religious minorities in Pakistan, and the political response to a court verdict freeing Asia Bibi, a Christian woman serving time for blasphemy.

A spark in Pakistan (Prospect)

This long-form reported piece appeared in Prospect’s November 2018 issue. It looks at the emergence of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, a peaceful civil rights movement drawing attention to military and human rights abuses. The movement has been subject to a harsh crackdown. I interviewed the group’s young leader, Manzoor Pashteen, as well as others involved in the movement. (Clipping to come).

 

 

From Our Own Correspondent

adieI’m a huge radio nerd and Kate Adie fan, so was really delighted to have a couple of pieces on the BBC’s flagship show From Our Own Correspondent this year. The programme airs on Radio 4 and the World Service.

The first piece, which aired in October, tells the story of Ali (not his real name), a survivor of what has been dubbed Pakistan’s biggest sexual abuse scandal. He was one of hundreds of victims of a child abuse ring in the city of Kasur, in Punjab. But despite widespread media coverage of their case, justice has been elusive, and Ali and other survivors are facing social exclusion.

The second story, which also aired first in October, looks at the many internally displaced people in Iraq who are living in half-built construction sites in Erbil. Many of these buildings were abandoned by property developers when the conflict with ISIS began, and they have been repurposed as homes for the million people who lost their homes.