When A Rag-Picker Loses His Home To Fire

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by Badar Bashir

SRINAGAR: At around midnight when his frightened daughter came screaming that their home is burning, Ghulam Mohammad Shamsher slapped her. After all, the family had retired for the night only after discussing her forthcoming marriage. It took Shamsheer a few moments more to understand that their home was actually afire.

A woman searching the debris to discovering something useful after her home went up in the flames. KL Image Badar Bashir

Living in Palpora’s Pamposh Colony, their close-knit circle of ramshackle houses was reduced to ashes when fire emerged from a dock, a wooden structure, at around 12:30, am on December 18. The fire was lit possibly by a fault on the power supply post, located just a cubit away from two homes in a narrow passage. Within less than an hour, sixteen families lost their shelter and came on the road, literally.

Hajira, a resident, who is a widow, said they immediately tried to inform the fire services department but the phone could not connect. “We sent a person on motorcycle and fire services prompted that saved many houses,” she said. “It was too late for most of the inhabitants, however.”

The locality has been an old outgrowth on the banks of Jhelum. These families had created these shelters after putting in a lot of efforts with their modest incomes. Now the locality is a ruin and the winter chill is adding to their crises. Still in disbelief that they have lost everything, they tell and retell the mayhem they witnessed.

A fire sufferers daughter showing the burnt currency notes that she was saving for rainy days in her pigi-bank. KL Image by Badar Bashir

Shamsher, 54, vividly remembers how he and his daughter moved out the gas cylinders to ensure the fire does not get vitriol. “The whole night we were weeping on street,” Shamsheer said. “I felt unconscious when the soaring temperatures prevented me from going even near to my house.” His only priority was to stay safe with his family. “We all sat together and looked for each other after we lost everything and sunk in our own pain.”

Bisma, Shamsheer’s 18 year old daughter dropped out of school at the age of 12, and manages the household chores. “Every time my father would give me money to buy groceries, I would secretly take out some coins and slip that into a steel box,” Bisma said. “I thought this small money would help in rainy days. I got the steel box but the cash has gone up in flames.” It was the same story for her locker that was stuffed with items for her marriage.

Why these small items are Bisma’s big story is because Shamsheer is a rag-picker, who earns hand to mouth, has an irregular working schedule and depends solely on how the weather behaves. He used to wake up early and start work but after his home went up in the fire, he hardly feels moving out. He even talks quite a little. “All we have got is just part of the basement with nothing inside,” Bisma said. “My aunt lives nearby. We all go to sleep there. It is she feeding us for all these days.”

Mudasir Ahmad Sheikh, 29, is Shamsher’s neighbour. “The first thing I picked up was my three children,” Sheikh said. “I found himself literally in a fireball. I threw my kids out of the window, one by one, towards a shed wherefrom the locals rescued them.” After kids, it was the LPG cylinder. “Then, came the turn of my wife and my parents and they all had to jump out of the window to safety.”

Sheikh said he had 500 kgs of rice, his winter stock but nothing is left now. “I had nothing to wear and somebody gave me a blanket and then I sold some copper wear to feed the family,” he said. He mentions the choices of his especially the Pherans of his daughter. “Their mother used to maintain pigi-banks for them, they lost that too.”

Later, DC Srinagar, Dr Shahid Iqbal Choudhary, visited the locality and distributed bank cheques worth Rs 5000 each. “How can we restart life with that?” asked one of the victims. “Managing debris of the fire cost us double than that.”

Apparently from the Red Cross, the district administration has given the families some mattresses, blankets and kitchen sets. The families say where will they cook?

Naazir, son of one of the fire victims, is member of Srinagar districts under-18 cricket team. He said he used to save pennies to buy a cricket kit. “As I see my family on the road, I see my cricket hitting an irreversible bouncer,” Naazir said.

Naazir said the fire appeared from Hajra’s house and exploded her gas cylinder. Then it spread around, he said. “When the LPG cylinders exploded, I thought me and my brother were blown off.”

Though all the families tackled LPG cylinders first, still three of them were caught in a fire and exploded.

Remains of a Home – Bisma and her brother assembling the ruins of the fire that destroyed their home. KL Image by Badar Bashir

After the fire was doused, the neighbouring locality started raising donations to extend some help. The collections are around Rs 180 thousands but it is yet to reach the victims.

Now there are rumors that the people in the vicinity have collected one lakh eighty thousand rupees but none of it reached us. They are telling everyone that we have given them money. Last time when the locality burnt for the first time, NC MLA, Mubarak Gul had extended help to them.

Though the fires have remained a historic crisis to a congested city, the new constructions have reduced the number of accidents. Now, most of the accidents are the outcome of absolute negligence or a fault in power supply circuits. Tragically, most of the fires take place during winters that makes the suffering of the victims more.

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