Most people write off Pakistan as a failed state where nothing works and which poses an appalling terrorist threat to the rest of the world. The truth is that Pakistan is more stable than it looks – and full of the most inspirational and fabulous people.
We spent two weeks sitting outside the Edhi ambulance centre in downtown Karachi. We were on the borderline. Three hundred yards in front of us was the stock-exchange, symbol of the success of this flourishing and modern commercial city. Three hundred yards behind us was Lyari Town, the old city of Karachi which is now dominated by gangs and where the police are at times afraid to go.
For us it felt rather like being a spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain. We lounged around, smoking cigarettes, drinking sweet tea and watching the world go by: motorcycles, brightly painted buses, taxis, cars, donkey carts, street porters, lorries, rickshaws, bicyclists. We particularly loved the buses, so colourful with their gaudy decorations and passengers overflowing onto the roofs. The energy was amazing.
Then suddenly a call would come through from the operations room: emergency! We'd jump into the ambulance and tear off, klaxon blaring, cutting our way through the Karachi traffic. Sometimes we'd be coming to the aid of someone who'd had a heart attack, sometimes to a traffic accident, but more often to the scene of violence. On one occasion we arrived to discover a robber had been beaten to death by an angry crowd after being apprehended trying to break into to an office. On another we found a robber who had been shot dead by the police while he tried to hold up a truck.
Most common of all were what the locals called 'targeted killings'. These involved gang violence. There were some 1300 of these in Karachi last year – more than the total number of deaths from terrorist attack in all Pakistan. The ambulance would blaze its way through the narrow Lyari streets (impossibly crowded during the day, hauntingly empty at the dead of night) to the scene of the shooting. On arrival, complex negotiations often take place with rival gangs so that a ceasefire can be arranged and the dead and the injured picked up.
We were working with Saleem, an ambulance driver who had been working for The Edhi Foundation(opens in a new window) for 24 years. He was a fine looking man, in a cream shalwah khameez, red baseball cap and red identity vest. There were no horrors that Saleem had not witnessed. He had been one of the first at the scene at the first (failed) assassination attempt of Benazir Bhutto. He'd spent a year away from home at the Kashmir earthquake in 2005. He was all too used to wading through the blood and carnage created by suicide bomb attacks.
On one trip to the Edhi morgue on the outskirts of Karachi, he told us how he was hardened by his experiences:
'Since I came to the Edhi Foundation, my heart is like a stone [...] Let me give an example. Recently my mother died and I laughed and my relatives asked why are you laughing? I said this happens every day. This is only one mother. How many mothers have I taken to the morgue? How many daughters? How many sons?'
Behind the gang violence in Karachi lies an ugly battle for resources – hardly surprising in a city which has grown in size from approximately 300,000 at the time of Partition in 1947 to approximately 20 million today. But focusing on Pakistan's problems can create a false picture. Pakistan has its problems. But it is also a vibrant, positive and magical country. And while it contains so many heroes like our ambulance driver Saleem, there is profound cause for hope.