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Kidnapping for ransom is one of the most profitable and widespread criminal enterprises in Pakistan, but one that is seldom discussed in public. It is particularly prevalent in the Punjab and Karachi. The targets tend to be rich businessmen and members of their families.
Run by organised gangs, those kidnapped are usually held in the tribal belt, where state control is weak. In 2009, 480 people were officially recognised as having been kidnapped for ransom in Pakistan, but the true figure is much higher.
According to journalist Saeed Shah, this is fuelling an atmosphere of fear among the country’s most affluent households: “The rich live behind high walls, steel gates and barbed wire, with guards patrolling… The elite drive in large jeeps, with blacked-out windows, sometimes with armed guards inside or following in another vehicle.”
Website PakWheels.com is bringing together those who love classic cars and the open road. Although traditional car clubs have been around for a while in major cities, internet forums like PakWheels are facilitating greater interaction and enabling more car enthusiasts to swap experiences.
They are also helping them to organise trips: One group travelled the 650-kilometre coastal road heading out of Karachi along the Arabian Sea and into Balochistan, while more adventurous travellers speed along the country’s near-deserted and bandit-infested desert highways.
Having devoted his working life to restoring Volkswagen Beetles, 49-year-old Khalid Mehmood says that online recommendations are now his main source of business.
On one recent Saturday, most shoppers in Lahore chose to remain indoors even though the day was a holiday, when the city’s malls would usually be thronged with shoppers. This was because of widespread power cuts due to an acute shortfall in hydroelectricity generation arising from low water levels, a problem that is becoming increasingly chronic.
As temperatures can exceed 40 degrees Celsius in many parts of the country during springtime, air conditioning is essential to the functioning of day-to-day commerce.
According to Madho Lal Hussain, who runs a jewellery shop in a local shopping mall: “I opened my shop around 11am, but not a single customer visited it because there is no electricity and the weather outside is very hot… I am unable to provide a comfortable atmosphere for my customers.” According to another local trader, “Our businesses will not survive for much longer if the power outages continue.”