ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In a dry country such as Pakistan, it can be hard to find a drink. And those who can often turn to bootleggers for concocted brews of who knows what.
This week, that search for a buzz during Eid celebrations led to deadly consequences.
In a span of 24 hours this week, at least 21 people died in Karachi from drinking toxic liquor, health officials said Wednesday. The victims represented a cross section of residents in Pakistan’s largest city, and officials are worried that the death toll will mount, said Seemi Jamali, head of emergency services at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center.
Statistically, the toll remains far short of a full-blown crisis in a city of at least 20 million residents that also struggles with near-daily killings and bombings.
But health officials note that 19 people also died in Karachi and surrounding areas last week after drinking toxic alcohol. Police are examining whether all the deaths can be traced to the same batch of liquor.
“Investigations are underway, and, hopefully, we’ll get the culprits who sold this life-taking liquor,” said Mohammad Hassan, a police official in Karachi’s Korangi district. “So far, there are no prime suspects.”
The deaths this week occurred as many Pakistanis were home marking Eid al-Adha, one of the most important holidays of the Islamic faith.During the multi-day holiday, Muslims sacrifice animals and hold grand feasts.
Officials say bootlegging has become a multimillion-dollar industry in Pakistan since alcohol consumption was banned in 1977 under then-Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
In the initial decades after Pakistan was partitioned from India in 1947, many Pakistanis held fairly liberal views on alcohol. Pakistan is home, after all, to one of South Asia’s most recognized distillers, Murree Brewery, which continues to sell alcohol to non-Muslims.
But government attitudes toward alcohol started shifting in the late 1960s and 1970s as conservative Islamic sentiments began to rise.
By 1971, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper noted in an article last December, the conservative
Jamaat-e-Islami movement was blaming Pakistani generals’ “liking for ‘wine and women’ ” for the military defeat that led to East Pakistan’s becoming Bangladesh.
In 1974, Bhutto banned alcohol in army mess halls, but beer and wine continued to flow in cities, Nadeem F. Paracha wrote in the article. By 1977, however, Bhutto agreed to a complete prohibition on alcohol to defuse building political unrest.
Still, in the ensuing decades, underground establishments sold beer and wine in cities such as Islamabad. But many of them closed after thousands of students with links to conservative preachers launched a wave of terror against “un-Islamic” activities in the capital in 2007.
Now, deaths from toxic alcohol have become routine. In 2007, more than 40 people died in Karachi in a span of a few days after becoming ill from alcohol.
In July 2013, also in Karachi, 18 people died after drinking at two separate parties on the same night, the BBC reported.
“Most reportedly died before they could be rushed to hospital,” the report said.
Three months later, the deaths of at least a dozen people in Multan, in central Pakistan, were traced to drinking.
And this June, at least 13 people died after drinking in Rawalpindi, a military town on the outskirts of Islamabad, ARY News reported.
Two suppliers were arrested in that case and indicted on terrorism charges.
Aamir Iqbal in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.