Night owls on the posh Gulshan rooftops across the lake would initially have seen but a flicker, easily mistaken for a campfire or one of the burning mounds of garbage that regularly pop up in Dhaka. It was not too long before this pleasant illusion was dispelled.
The campfire became a bonfire, and the bonfire turned into an inferno. Like a ravenous and insatiable python, it slithered forward devouring shanty after shanty, growing more monstrous with every bite.
After all, what can you do but pray when your home is condemned to burn and fire services are struggling to contain the blaze?
This despair is nothing new to the residents of Korail. The fire on March 16 marked the third time that a blaze had ravaged Dhaka’s largest slum in little over a year.
Rising up ...
One resident who has suffered particularly harsh losses is RMG worker Salma Akhter Brishti. She was married to her husband Rafique in 2010, but this would not be the beginning of a happy chapter in her life.
When she was three months pregnant, her husband and in-laws kicked her out of their house in Rajshahi after she failed to meet their demands for dowry.
“My son is still wearing the same clothes he was on the night of the fire”
Not one to lie down in the face of adversity, Salma strove to find ways to provide for her son, driven to provide him with an education that would help attain a higher standard of living.
“So I started working in Dhaka with my mother, who served as a maid at a number of houses. My first job was with a Pakistani woman. Over six months at her household, I learned Urdu and some Hindi,” Salma said.
Ever the resourceful individual, Salma continued to look for opportunities to learn so that she could add to her increasing value in the hopes of gaining a greater income. Through subsequent jobs with three Arab families, she added Arabic and English to her repertoire of languages.
Salma finally secured stable employment five years ago, when she took a job as a ready-made garments (RMG) worker. Since then, she had been staying with her parents, two brothers and her child at the Korail slum.
With years of sweat and toil, Salma had saved up a respectable Tk12,000 towards her dream of getting an education for her son. But in the span of one night, her life’s work and savings went up in smoke.
“My son is still wearing the same clothes he was on the night of the fire. We were unable to save anything but ourselves,” Salma said with anguish in her eyes. Clutching her child close, she wished there was some way to sift her dreams from the ashes.
“We expect that the landlord, like always, will repair our house again so that we do not leave,” she said, but this was likely to be a double-edged sword. In addition to an annual rent hike at the slum, landlords increase the rent further in the case of fires and other accidents for “rebuilding” purposes.
This act of kicking destitute people already floored from a hammer blow seems at best greedy and at worst hateful. Furthermore, it gives a small indication of why slum dwellers were distrustful of authorities when asked what they thought was the cause of the fire.
“We are pretty sure this was arson,” Salma said from behind deadened and hopeless eyes.
“If the government asked us, we would have moved. There was no point in setting fire to our belongings. It was an act of sabotage. Everything I had is nothing but dust in the wind.”
The 150 acre plot of land on which the Korail slum is located is owned by the Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Limited. The company has long held plans to build an ICT park in the area, but several attempts to evict slum dwellers since 2012 have all met with failure in the face of petitions from the Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) and Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), who demanded proper rehabilitation prior to the eviction drives.
Though this is not evidence of wrongdoing, it certainly demonstrates motive for sabotage as far as Salma is concerned.
Salma was not the only Korail resident who held this view. The more locals we asked, the more stories we received of how the fire broke out and spread as if fueled by some kind of accelerant, like petrol.
In the absence of an explanation for such heinous actions, the most logical conclusion locals could arrive at was that the fire was started to drive them away so that the government could reclaim the land. Some even claimed that the Fire Service had intentionally responded late.
Whether such accusations hold any merit is questionable, as fire victims were understandably in grief. The fact remains that there is a lack of clarity around the Korail fire.
Fire Service officials claim that around 500 shanties were gutted in the blaze, but locals put the number closer to 3,000. Mahbubur Rahman, Dustha Shasthya Kendra (DSK) manager for the Promoting Environmental Health for the Urban Poor project for Korail slum, said at least 250,000 people were living in the slum and in adjacent areas as of November 2016.
Of 3,020 fire incidents reported in Dhaka last year, only 578 were investigated. Of these 578 investigations, only 12 reports were submitted to government agencies concerned and none were made public, according to Fire Service officials in the aftermath of the latest Korail fire.
Fire victims will continue to play this blame game with authorities as long as this lack of transparency persists, however all this distracts from one crucial fact. Salma and many others like her have lost everything in their possession, and no amount of clarity regarding what actually happened is going to change that.
Making the reports public is but one small step in insuring those responsible are held accountable, so that such a tragedy can be prevented in the future. Without the installation of proper preventive measures and adequate compensation, victims teetering on the brink of despair may drown.