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Pakistan
SEPTEMBER 2007
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Pakistan

By Don Belt
Photographs by Reza

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Edhi's family came by ship, landing on September 6, 1947, three weeks after Pakistan came into being, amid throngs of people shouting "Pakistan zindabad—long live Pakistan!" Within an hour, as he walked the streets of his new home, he saw a Hindu man murdered by a mob of young Muslim boys. "They stabbed him over and over with a knife, and I'll never forget watching him writhe in pain on the ground. All over Karachi, Hindus were packing up and running away, exactly as we'd done in India. Just like that, our joy turned to horror and shame. That's what I remember about partition."

Edhi's adopted city of Karachi has grown from a population of 450,000 in 1947 to a surging metropolis of more than 15 million people. It may be the most cosmopolitan of Pakistan's cities, but it is among the most dangerous as well—a place where Pakistan's widening gap between rich and poor is on full display. Karachi is a sprawling universe of ramshackle neighborhoods that radiate north, west, and east from the glitzy seaside hotels, office towers, and diplomatic fortresses downtown, where car bombs are an occupational hazard and personal security a billion-dollar-a-year business. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are known to operate in the squalid "no go" neighborhoods of Karachi, beyond the reach of police and perhaps even Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's powerful military intelligence agency.

In the middle of all this sits Edhi, a dignified man wearing a gray shalwar kameez (Pakistan's national dress) and a furry black cap in the style Jinnah wore—a fitting touch in a man who describes himself as a "super patriot." In a neighborhood of litter-strewn streets, Edhi's headquarters is a cluttered office that adjoins the two small rooms where he lives with his wife, Bilquis, his partner in the foundation. Edhi's operation relies on donations; he refuses to accept government money or even a ride in someone else's car. He travels by ambulance, in case someone needs help along the way. Outside Edhi's office, a metal crib is stationed on the stairway beneath a sign reading, "Don't Kill Your Baby." Every Edhi Foundation office in the country has such a crib, where a mother can leave an unwanted baby, no questions asked. Edhi's Karachi office alone receives 90 babies a month, half of them alive.

Today a young nurse in a head scarf brings in a newborn left in the crib overnight, a girl wrapped in a soft floral blanket, perhaps four days old, her arms and legs shrunken and disfigured. The nurse places her on Edhi's desk, like a gift. He picks up the infant and gently strokes her malformed hands with his finger, whispering to her in Gujarati, his native language, his long gray beard tickling her nose. As this little girl grows, she'll be given medical care in one of the foundation's clinics, sheltered in its orphanage, educated in one of its schools, and sent forth into a carefully arranged marriage with job skills and a dowry. Edhi has given away hundreds of brides at the foundation's wedding facility, a cross between a Bollywood set and the Elvis Suite at a Las Vegas hotel, with a bed in the shape of a heart. A bulletin board in the lobby is filled with dozens of wedding pictures, each happy bride a miracle child plucked from Edhi's rescue cradle.


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