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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Grenfell Tower is a monument to the tragic inequalities of modern Britain

Almost a year on from the fire in London, the pain for the survivors is brutal and fresh, writes Shelina Janmohamed

The tragedy that struck Grenfell Tower in London was of  such epic proportions that it galvanised a nation. AP
The tragedy that struck Grenfell Tower in London was of  such epic proportions that it galvanised a nation. AP

It has been a sobering week as the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry has drawn to a close. These initial days have been given over to recollections and tributes of the survivors, family and friends. It has been harrowing for all of us, but I can’t imagine the emotion and horror felt by those who suffered directly.

Ahmed Algwahry recounted listening to his mother and sister die on the phone. “I heard my Mum’s voice. She was struggling for breath. She said her last words: ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe’. She was so frightened.”

Paulos Tekle described the loss of his five year old boy Isaac. He says firefighters told them to stay put in their flat, but if they had left he feels his son would still be alive rather than lost in the smoke. “My joy has gone. I will do everything to find the truth.”

It is that truth that the inquiry is setting out to find. But in many ways, residents and neighbours say they knew the truth: that multiple complaints had been raised to the authorities, and their safety had not seriously been considered or valued.

What appeared true to those who have suffered is that Kensington and Chelsea, the local area in which Grenfell is located, is also one of the richest areas of the UK. Yet basic costs for safety were not paid for its poorest residents. What seemed true from initial reports was that the cladding, which appears to have caused the fire's rapid spread, was more about ensuring an ugly building was palatable to rich local residents than ensuring the safety of its inhabitants.

What survivors like Mr Tekle will be looking to find out is how many of these instinctive reactions in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy are in fact the truth.

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The tragedy was of such epic proportions that it galvanised a nation. It dominated UK and global coverage for days. The awful event took place during a hot Ramadan, and many of both the victims and the local communities that were involved in rescues during that night and the subsequent days were Muslims, who fasted in the heat.

The 24 storey tower ablaze against the dark blue night sky, the thought of people inside waiting for death to reach them is unforgettable. Even today, if you drive through west London, the charred ghoulish remains of the building tower over the area. It makes your stomach churn.

Promises were made, oh how many promises. The survivors were all guaranteed re-housing. But almost a year on, of the 209 households that needed rehousing, only 62 have moved into permanent new accommodation; 188 have accepted offers of temporary or permanent homes, but only 128 have moved in. There are still 82 households in emergency accommodation including 25 families and 39 children.

Promises were made to ensure that other unsafe buildings would be brought up to scratch. But it was eleven months later that Prime Minister Theresa May pledged £400 million to address the problem. Still, the government won’t even commit to banning combustible cladding, saying it will merely consult on the issue.

There was also an implicit promise, that the systemic issues that led to this awful horror would be righted.

As much as Grenfell was about building regulations, about the incompetence of authorities, about cost-savings, it was also about something bigger – whose voices get heard, whose rights matter and who we take seriously. And even bigger than that, who we see as having rights in society which must be addressed and protected.

It happened in the aftermath of the fire, and the dark-hearted conversations still happen today – they were illegals, they were immigrants, they were subletting, it was their fault. Because they looked different, they were from different backgrounds, they were poor and the "other".

But this is not just the trolls, or the far right. These attitudes are deep rooted and embedded in the systems that determine who should be listened to and whose voices to give weight to, as the recent Windrush scandal demonstrated.

This week's person-by-person memorial has done great work in humanising the victims and is much needed. But nearly a year on, it feels like the pain for survivors is as brutal and fresh as ever. Let’s hope the inquiry gives them the truth that so many of them seek.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

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