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A police officer I interviewed for the piece shows a death threat texted to his mobile.

A police officer I interviewed for the piece shows a death threat texted to his mobile.

Earlier this year, I travelled to Karachi (where I lived in 2012) to spend some time with the city’s crime reporters. This is one of the most crime-ridden cities in the world, plagued by political conflict, organised mafias, and now, terrorism. The city is enormous, so gang wars can change one area into a battlefield while others remain totally untouched. This is something I’ve noticed acutely when staying with family (my mother is from Karachi and many of our relatives still live there); in the luxurious houses and beautiful gardens in the elite districts, you might barely notice the tension consuming the city at large – were it not for the armed guards outside every house.

Reporting on Karachi’s crime wave and tracking the shifting nature of the threat from gang wars to terrorist strongholds is a high stakes, dangerous job. I spent some time with Zille Hyder, a television crime reporter who proudly proclaims his place on a terrorist hit-list, exploring the day-to-day reality of his job and trying to work out why anyone would choose to do something that puts their life at such risk. The piece was months in the making and I’m really proud of the result, which is published in the Guardian’s long-read section on 21 October. You can read the piece (around 6000 words) here, or the clipping is below.

It falls to Hyder and the city’s crime reporters to make sense of the throbbing disorder of Karachi. The fact that crime has infiltrated every aspect of life there puts them in the curious position of being minor celebrities; Hyder regularly receives fan mail and is often recognised in public. The Karachi airport attack shows that reporters can sometimes go overboard – but deciphering the shifts in ethnic conflict and gangland alliances is a vital job. The fate of Pakistan depends on Karachi, the megalopolis that provides a quarter of the nation’s GDP, and the fate of Karachi will be decided by the power struggles between its gangsters, terrorists, police and political groups.

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Lubna Lal, election candidate. Photograph: Samira Shackle

Lubna Lal, election candidate. Photograph: Samira Shackle

Since the year has drawn to a close (and I’m avoiding getting started on 2014), I thought I’d post links to some of the articles I most enjoyed working on in 2013. I had a brilliantly interesting year, in which I covered Pakistan’s first ever democratic transition in May, and lots of other great stories in both Pakistan and Britain.

1. Politicians of the third gender: the “shemale” candidates of Pakistan (New Statesman)

This year was the first time that Pakistan’s “hijra” community were eligible to vote and stand in elections. I traveled to different parts of the country to meet the trans women breaking down boundaries to stand as candidates. Quite apart from the political implications, it was a fascinating insight into the world of a marginalised community.

I wrote this piece as part of a series on Pakistan’s minorities in the run up to the election, also including this piece on the Hazara, and this on the Ahmadis.

2. Syria: my journey into a nightmare war (Guardian)

Much has been made of British men joining the fight in Syria. This coverage has mainly focused on the terror threat these men pose on their return, and on the luxury of the so-called “five star jihad”. In November, I had the opportunity to interview a young British Syrian who had a very different story to tell. Motivated not by radical Islam but by the desire to fight alongside his family, he returned traumatised and disillusioned. This is one of very, very few interviews with a British veteran of the Syrian conflict to appear in the press.

3. Saving Pakistan (Prospect)

Published near the beginning of the year, this long article for Prospect took a detailed look at the scope of militancy in Pakistan and different counter-terrorism programmes attempting to combat it. What I particularly enjoyed about researching this piece was discovering a whole world of innovative – and often, it seems, effective – programmes to tackle militancy, ranging from “deradicalisation centres” to programmes to teach mothers critical thinking so that they would be empowered to question their sons.

It’s behind a paywall at the Prospect site, but the PDF is published here.

4. Pakistan’s female election candidates have bags of confidence (Guardian)

This was another article written during the run up to the May election in Pakistan. It was an election that saw a record number of female candidates including, for the first time, some from the conservative tribal areas. I interviewed female politicians and looked at the role they played in the last parliament. What I loved about doing this piece was not only speaking to inspirational women fighting extraordinary odds to secure representation, but presenting a side of Pakistan which is not often seen in the western media.

5. Why would anyone believe in the “Islamophobia industry”? (New Statesman)

I was still living in Pakistan when the horrendous attack in Woolwich took place. I watched from afar as the images of the murderers were broadcast – and as far right groups like the EDL attempted to monopolise the incident for their own ends. After I moved back to London, I wrote this in-depth piece about the ensuing backlash against British Muslims, asking whether this is something that we, as a society, need to worry about.

A Free Syrian Army fighter in Damascus.

A Free Syrian Army fighter in Damascus.

How did a young British man with no combat experience join the Free Syrian Army?

In a piece for the Guardian, I interviewed a London student of Syrian origin who went to join his cousins to fight in Damascus. Now back in the UK, he gave a vivid insight into the bloody reality of war.

I don’t know how to feel. Part of me is relieved that I made it back alive, but I feel guilty that my relatives and my people are dying. I have only minor physical injuries, but the mental scars are still there. I don’t sleep well at night and I often wake up screaming. Most people in Syria don’t have the option of running away like I did. But I am glad to be alive.

You can read the full piece over at the Guardian, and the cutting is below.

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Christians in Peshawar protest after the bomb attack.

Christians in Peshawar protest after the bomb attack.

On 22 September, a huge bomb attack at a church in Peshawar killed more than 80 people. It was the worst attack on Christians in Pakistan’s history. I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the attack, giving some background about the persecution of Christians in the country:

It is these major incidents that make international news, but a low level of discrimination is a fact of life for many of Pakistan’s religious minorities. Christians make up around 1.6% of the population and number around 2.8 million. Generations ago, in pre-partition India, many were Hindus, subsequently converting from the very lowest caste (of dalit, once known as “untouchable”). Pakistan – a largely Muslim state – does not have a caste system, but its shadow can be seen in the treatment of Christians today.

On the same day, I wrote a piece for the New Humanist magazine, recalling my experiences of researching the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan (a subject I’ve done a lot of work on – notably with this feature from 2011).

In various interviews with Christians in different cities of Pakistan, I have been struck by the lack of anger. Most quietly accept their lot, aware that they lack the political clout to agitate for change. “We are very few in a big nation, so we try to stay out of trouble,” one young man, working as a domestic servant, told me in Karachi. “Politicians don’t give us any importance.”

I also appeared on the BBC World Service radio show World Have Your Say on 24 September, speaking about the attack in Peshawar, the siege of the Westgate mall in Nairobi, and whether there has been a rise in global terror.

Former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar.

Former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar.

Ahead of the general election, I wrote a feature for the Guardian’s G2 about Pakistan’s female election candidates. While there is a long history of female representation in the subcontinent, these women generally hail from political dynasties. Is that starting to change? The piece looks at the challenges faced by female politicians, and the progress that has been made.

“It is difficult for women,” says Anis Haroon, a caretaker minister for human rights and women. “It’s non-traditional ground to tread, and women still bear the responsibility of home and children. Character assassination is easy in a patriarchal, conservative society. Women must work twice as hard to prove their worth.” Last month, an election official in Lahore told the husband of prospective candidate Sadia Sohail that if she were elected, “the arrangements at your home will be ruined and no one will be there to attend your children”.

You can read the full piece at the Guardian website.

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Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, who was assassinated in Islamabad on Friday 3 May.

Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, who was assassinated in Islamabad on Friday 3 May.

As the 11 May election date approaches, the campaign of violence in Pakistan has increased drastically. I’ve been speaking and writing about the subject. Here are a few links.

Pakistan’s deadly democracy (Guardian)

Upcoming elections have been called the bloodiest ever, as political killings on a dizzying scale fuel mistrust and insecurity. I’ve written about the issue for the Guardian.

Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, chief prosecutor in Benazir Bhutto assassination, murdered in Pakistan (New Statesman)

On Friday 3 May, the lawyer leading the inquiry into Bhutto’s death was gunned down on his way to a court hearing. I blogged on it for the New Statesman.

BBC World Service

The same day, I appeared on the BBC’s World Service, both radio and television, to discuss the upsurge of political violence.  The podcast of the radio discussion is here and will be available until Friday 10th May.

How the Taliban is having a chilling effect on the Pakistani election (New Statesman)

In late April, I wrote a piece for the New Statesman which looks at how the secular, liberal parites have been intimidated into silence.

The death toll for the dual factory fires in Pakistan currently stands at more than 300. In large part, this heavy loss of life was due to corruption and a failure to implement labour laws. I wrote about this for the Guardian last week:

Pakistan is a country with an enormous gulf between rich and poor, and an undue amount of influence wielded by a small number of industrial families. The country functions on a deeply entrenched web of patronage and vested interests, meaning that there is little interest in workers’ rights and little motivation to change the status quo. Corruption exists at every level, from bribing local officials to overlook an illegal building, to influencing government policy. The civilian regime is weak, and according to labour activists, regulation has deteriorated even further in the past few years along with a general decline in governance.

It was one of the most-read pieces on the site over the weekend. You can read the full piece at the Guardian.

This week, I’ve also reviewed Antony Lerman’s book “The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist”. The review is over at Middle East Monitor.