On Friday, VICE released "The VICE Guide to Karachi," a five-part documentary that takes a look at the underbelly of Pakistan's largest and most dangerous city.
In the 42-minute film, Suroosh Alvi, one of the founders of VICE, interviews a motorcycle hit man who says he's killed at least 30 people, accompanies police as they look for suspected members of the Taliban, and visits one of the largest garbage dumps in the world.
The Huffington Post caught up with Alvi ahead of the full-length release, and he shared his thoughts about what it's like to interview an assassin, if he ever felt like his life was in danger, and how he feels about Karachi as a travel destination.
Where did you get the idea to shoot in Karachi?
We’ve been following Karachi for the last few years, and when I saw the statistics that more people died violent deaths in Karachi in 2011 than from drone strikes in the tribal areas (where the “war on terror” is happening) we thought it needed investigating. Karachi is home to the wealthy elite, educated people, tech startups, a fashion industry, and is the economic engine of the country. Basically there’s a LOT going on, and if things go pear-shaped in Karachi, it could destabilize the country and region. Pakistan’s location gives it an extremely high level of geo-strategic influence, so it’s important to pay attention to it.
What makes Karachi so dangerous?
There’s a rich history of violence in Karachi that dates back to when Pakistan was formed in 1947 -- ethnic division, sectarian killings, suicide bombings in recent years, gang wars, mafia, and target killers (hitmen). It’s one of the fastest growing cities in the world, pushing 18 million people, and there is a shortage of everything: land, water, electricity, jobs, etc. The city is a turf war coupled with an insane political situation and massive levels of corruption that together make for an ultra-violent metropolis. And it only seems to be getting worse.
What security measures did you take?
We had no security on this trip, but we did have a fixer we would listen to when he was around. He had a tendency to disappear though, so most of the evenings we were on our own. Going into Lyari (Karachi’s most densely populated slum run by gangsters) in the middle of the night was a leap of faith, but we had a verbal commitment from the mob bosses that we would be protected and not kidnapped. They held true to their word.
Were there any moments when you felt your life was in danger?
My senses were on high alert throughout the entire trip. One of the main reasons was that I brought my producer Jason Mojica along -- a 6’2” skinny white American. We weren’t blending in like we normally do when we film in Pakistan. Also, the Daniel Pearl incident ten years ago was a constant reminder of the reality of where we were, as the restaurant where he was kidnapped from and subsequently beheaded, was directly across the street from our hotel. 100 percent of our shoot locations were in areas a million times worse than that place. Thankfully, there were no moments where I felt my life was in danger, although interviewing an assassin felt borderline, at best.
What's it like to chat with a self-proclaimed assassin?
Heavy. I was extremely paranoid beforehand -– if I was being setup by my fixer then that was it, the end. It also happened to be my birthday, so it would have been a bummer way to celebrate. Target killers exist almost exclusively in Karachi. There are isolated cases of this brand of murdering elsewhere in Pakistan but generally it’s pretty exclusive to the city we were in, so we felt it was important for our piece. There are 600 of them cruising around Karachi, available to hire for between $700-$1000. And sitting so close to someone who makes death for a living, in a tiny little 3-cylinder Suzuki car, made me terrified and nauseous. I thought I was going to puke for hours afterwards. Thankfully it was on our last night in town. We were starting to feel disconnected from reality after a week of lunacy and darkness. It was time to go home.
You encountered several individuals who were reluctant to speak with you. Why do you think they were hesitant?
Two men in Orangi Town (one of the largest slums in South Asia, pop. 4.5 million) refused to talk to us. The Taliban is everywhere around there, so they were either Taliban, or worried that if they spoke to us they would be killed.
Would you recommend Karachi as a travel destination?
For some people, definitely, but only the well-seasoned. It’s a fascinating place, and there are amazing people there. Pakistan in general is a beautiful country but the country has suffered and sacrificed greatly assisting America in fighting a proxy war. And militancy has now fucked it all up.
Are any of the individuals you interviewed likely to see the film?
Yes, I think they have all seen it, but the only people who we’ve heard back from are the kids in Lyari, who thought it was shot “beautifully.”