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The Crime That Has Shocked Pakistan

Abdul Sattar Edhi, 86, is an iconic figure in Pakistan who founded and runs the country's best-known charitable group. The Edhi Foundation was robbed of more than $1 million on Sunday, a crime that has provoked outrage. (AFP/Getty Images)

The man whom some revere as Pakistan's greatest living philanthropist wears a long white beard, simple robes fashioned from coarse dark-blue cotton, and an air of calm authority that contrasts strikingly with the raucous port city that is his home.

Abdul Sattar Edhi is sitting in the ramshackle building that serves as both his house and the headquarters of his giant charitable foundation that has, for decades, been saving lives among the helpless, lost, abandoned, abused and destitute of one of the world's toughest, roughest towns — Karachi.

Edhi looks frail and weary, which is scarcely surprising, given that he's 86 and has spent much of the day in hospital on a dialysis machine because of his failing kidneys. Yet, in a quavering voice, he politely fields questions about an incident that seems to be pricking the collective conscience of his nation.

"I am definitely sad," he says, quietly. "Anyone would be sad if his reward for 65 years of service is to be robbed."

Pakistanis have long become accustomed to an endless stream of grim news from Karachi, their commercial capital, about sectarian and gangland killings, extrajudicial police shootings, heists and holdups, militant attacks (though these have recently dipped) and muggings. Most of these crimes struggle to merit a mention in the newspapers, because they're so common.

Yet, although no one was hurt, the robbery at the headquarters of the Edhi Foundation has caught the nation's eye, and is serving as the catalyst for an uncomfortable debate about the way Pakistanis treat their finest citizens.

Feeding this is a lingering controversy about the ambivalence, and even outright resentment, shown by some toward their newly chosen 17-year-old Nobel peace laureate, Malala Yousafzai. Pakistanis tend to portray the teenager as a puppet of the West.

The robbery happened on Sunday. Edhi was asleep when a group of about eight men, carrying pistols and iron bars, marched in. After herding staff into Edhi's bedroom at gunpoint, the gang pried open the security lockers.

Inside, they found nearly $1 million worth of currency, 5 kilos of gold and some jewelry. They stashed these riches into bags and took off, weaving a path through the surrounding alleys on motorbikes.

Some of the loot was donations to the foundation. But some was money and valuables that the public had deposited with Edhi because, in a city where everyone is fearful of being robbed, and few use banks, he was considered the safest and most trustworthy option.

Surely, no one would dare rob a man held in such high respect, an octogenarian whom some Pakistanis even revere as a saint? That's what everyone thought.

News of the raid on Edhi was met with outrage on Twitter and by the news media. In an editorial, the Express Tribune newspaper said it was "symbolic of the depravity of our culture," adding that "it was not only Abdul Sattar Edhi who was robbed; it was the entire nation."

The paper described Edhi as Pakistan's "greatest living philanthropist, a man whose work is known and respected around the world ... a national icon, a man Pakistan can be proud of."

A cupboard stuffed with prestigious international and national wards is testimony to Edhi's lifetime of charitable works. Many Pakistanis believe he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. He was nominated by a past prime minister.

Edhi's mission began when he was in his early 20s, shortly after he arrived in Pakistan during the mass migration of Muslims from India that followed independence from Britain and the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. He was uneducated, and so poor that he had to stand on the streets and beg for funds.

From these roots, he built a huge charitable network that runs Pakistan's largest fleet of private ambulances, and rescues and supports a remarkable range of people. They range from babies abandoned in cradles specially placed outside his foundation's many branches, to orphans, abused women, the old, impaired, even the dead.

Over the years, Edhi has personally picked up thousands of unidentified corpses, dumped on Karachi's streets, and taken them to his mortuary, where he washes them before burial.

"He is a highly respected individual," says Zohra Yusuf, chair of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission and a Karachi resident.

"He is also seen as someone who is individualistic, perhaps a bit eccentric. His way of working is very different from a lot of other similar charities. But he is exceptional."

She describes Edhi as "absolutely noncommunal and nonsectarian" — a key factor in a city deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. Edhi generally steers away from politics, although it's said he makes no secret of his contempt for politicians.

You might expect Edhi to feel similar contempt for those who just robbed his center, violating those who entrusted him with their assets for so long. It's clear he'd like the thieves to return what they stole. But he's dismissive about the raid, rather than angry. It won't interfere with his philanthropy.

"I don't care," he says, in his faltering voice. "No matter how bad the situation here becomes, I won't give up."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In its simplest form, this next story is the tale of a bank robbery. More precisely, it's the story of an extraordinary man who functioned as an informal bank in an extraordinary place.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In the giant Pakistani city of Karachi, people who did not trust banks trusted Abdul Sattar Edhi to keep their money. He's revered worldwide for helping the poor. People thought no thieves would dare target him - until they did. Here's NPR's Philip Reeves.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The people of Karachi are hard to shock. Sectarian and gangland killings, kidnappings, muggings and break-ins occur pretty much every day in this giant metropolis. Step into the streets, though, and it's clear the crime against the philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi falls into a different category.

SALMAN MEMON: (Through translator) I was really surprised because Edhi is a very nice man. He helps all types of poor people.

REEVES: That's Salman Memon, a young man just starting a career in business. An old man, S.J. Bukht interrupts. He's lived here all his life and says Abdul Sattar Edhi's exceptional.

S.J. BUKHT: People trust him. Those whose put the money with him, they trust him.

REEVES: All about trust.

BUKHT: Yes, they have faith in him. Full faith. Completely full faith.

REEVES: That trust is built on more than 65 years of humanitarian work. Edhi runs Pakistan's biggest welfare foundation and largest private ambulance service. He's won a cupboard-full of international awards and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. His foundation rescues and supports an extraordinary range of people - abandoned babies, orphans, abused women, disaster victims, the old, the impaired and the dead.

ZOHRA YUSUF: He personally picks up bodies. He washes them. The unidentified bodies are kept in his mortuary, and then they are buried.

REEVES: Zohra Yusuf, chair of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission, lives in Karachi. She says her city is angry and upset.

YUSUF: I think there's a great deal of, you know, not just shock, but a sense of sadness that criminals or whoever's responsible, they could stoop to this level, to rob a man who is, you know, working for charity.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRYING CHILD)

REEVES: This is where the robbery happened, at the Edhi Foundation's ramshackle headquarters in Karachi's chaotic old city. Edhi has no house and very few possessions. He lives and works here. He was asleep when some men marched in with pistols and iron bars. They held Edhi and his staff at gunpoint, broke open the security lockers and stole nearly a million dollars' worth of cash, 11 pounds of gold and some jewelry. Some of this was donation money, some cash and valuables that people had asked Edhi to keep for them because no one ever believed anyone would rob such a respected man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL)

SCHOOL CHILDREN: F.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: G.

CHILDREN: G.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: H.

CHILDREN: H.

REEVES: At a tiny school for tiny kids, upstairs at the Edhi headquarters lessons continue as normal despite the robbery.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL CHILDREN SINGING)

REEVES: The kids sit on mats on the floor, at tiny wooden desks, with tiny blackboards. These children, abandoned by the rest of society, seem happy, yet staff here are shaken up, especially Edhi's wife, Bilquis, who plays a leading role in the foundation's work.

BILQUIS EDHI: (Through translator) The shock was unbearable. What can a helpless women do? I'm just thankful they did not kill my husband.

REEVES: The raid on Edhi is causing some soul-searching among Pakistanis about how they treat their finest citizens. There's already controversy about their ambivalence towards their teenage Nobel Peace Laureate Malala Yousafzai, who's regularly portrayed here as a puppet of the West. Edhi himself is philosophical. He's a frail man with a big, white beard and simple, coarsely woven cloths that reflect a famously frugal lifestyle. Last evening, Edhi was sitting near his front door greeting guests in a weak voice, after a day in hospital on a dialysis machine because of failing kidneys.

ABDUL SATTAR EDHI: (Through translator) I am definitely sad. Anyone would be sad if his reward for 65 years of service is to be robbed.

REEVES: But he adds...

A. EDHI: (Through translator) No matter how bad the situation here becomes, I won't give up. I will not lose hope.

REEVES: Edhi says he'll continue helping the poor and dispossessed until his dying breath. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Karachi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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