Left with nothing

Namira Hossain talks to victims of the latest Korail slum fire to see how they are coping after this forgotten tragedy


It was 3:00am of March 16, 2017 when Asma heard her landlady crying that there was a fire. She quickly grabbed her sleeping children and stood out on the field stricken by the sight of the sky ablaze. ‘The field was filled with others like me, all crying and screaming,’ says Asma, a worker at the Jaago School in Korail where her home also stood not so long ago. ‘Everyone was running like headless chickens – forget belongings, we were running for our lives,’ she says. Around 500 houses were affected in this fire that began in the middle of the night and raged on till the next day.


It was only during the last year that Bangladesh was ranked eighth in the ‘World Happiness Report’ according to a study by the UK based New Economics Foundation (NEF). This is of course, before the occurrence of a number of incidents that would potentially threaten this happiness – such as the Holey Artisan attacks and a number of fires that ravaged areas of the city which are mostly inhabited by the very poor, and hence forgotten about in the media after a day or two. The sight and news of fires breaking out in the heavily congested slum areas have become commonplace now, the last fire occurring on December 5, 2016 and the most recent having taken place on March 16, 2017. Despite training of the fire services, the narrow streets of Korail are inaccessible by car, so the firefighters had to resort to using the lake, thus taking them even longer to get in.


As Asma recalls the horrific incident, she is still clearly shaken. Her voice keeps shaking and her face is haunted by the incident which took place just barely over two weeks ago. ‘The fire just seemed to jump, it moved so fast,’ she says. As it closed in from three sides, she said a short prayer and left her home. ‘I tried to go back to grab my things, but it was too late and no one would let me,’ says Asma. As she herself put it, there was not really anything to grab except for their lives.


The houses in Korail are almost stacked on top of each other, like sardines inside a tin. The narrow streets are lined with rubbish and the feces of malnutritioned dogs and it is impossible to walk without bumping into somebody else. Even after almost two weeks, the smell of something burning clings in the air and bits of the corrugated tin roofs are singed and lying on the ground.


Despite the lack of a roof over their heads, majority of the slum dwellers have not moved from the spots where their homes used to stand. Asma says that her children were cutting their feet on bits of tin strewn across the ground and even though she has found a place to stay, things still remain awry. ‘My younger son cannot sleep at night, he keeps jerking around,’ she says, ‘we don’t even have a pillow to rest our heads upon.’


In the tightly cramped tin house which Asma occupied, there lived 23 other tenants. There were eight rooms in two stories, with a bathroom and kitchen on each floor. Her family of five lived in a room that was smaller than eight by eight feet. And each month they paid a rent of Tk 2800 which also includes water, gas, electricity and a cable line.


Recently, there had been claims in the media that land in the Korail slum is more expensive per square feet than even in Gulshan. The origins of the fire were near the Boubazar mosque and so rumours were circulating that this may have been a case of premeditated arson. However, given the state of the living situations in the shanties, the reason may actually not be so sinister. Mohiuddin, another slum dweller, says that the fire probably spread so fast because the shanties are cluttered together. ‘There is very little security with the gas line and electricity,’ he claims. For this reason, he says that the cooking gas stove is turned off at his house at 10:00pm. But there are many others who come from their jobs at the garments factories late into the night and hence, their gas stays on.


On the night of the fire at Korail, around 10 units of the fire services were dispatched from various areas – the nearest being Tejgaon and the furthest coming from other areas such as Uttara. Senior Station Officer Faisal from the Tejgaon unit says that the fire services are assigned to go visit these risky areas on different days to build awareness around preventing fires. Those who live in these high risk areas are then handed out leaflets. Apparently, the control room was not notified of the fire till around 2:30am.


‘There is absolutely no space on the roads – our fire equipment is also very heavy and crowd control at that time is almost impossible,’ he declares. After they left their truck, they had to navigate through the narrow streets for about 15 minutes. When they found a source of water to attach their hose and douse the fire, they discovered that somebody else had tried to use that same water line and so they had to find another. He says no specific reason has yet been discovered for this fire. ‘Usually, it is the same three or four reasons – could be a short circuit, somebody leaving their gas on, from a mosquito coil or even cigarettes,’ he offers.


For now though, the victims have no choice but to hope for the best. Asma says that everybody is staying put under makeshift roofs of paper and blankets to keep out the rain. After the previous fire in December, the government did their best to rehabilitate the victims by building new houses for them. Her previous landlady, Laizu is still in the same spot. ‘I used to earn some money here and there by making clothes with my sewing machine – that has gone up in flames now,’ she mentions. When asked about their plans for the future, they still remain uncertain.
Having come to city in the hopes of leaving behind the extreme poverty of the villages, they are reluctant to go back. Some remain hopeful that the government or other organisations will help them. Asma however, does not share their optimism. She says, ‘no one is going to help me because I work at the Jaago school and so they think I sit and eat with “bideshis”, I do not know what the future holds.’

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