x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Charity should start at home for Abu Dhabi fire victims

After more than two years in Abu Dhabi, I can't help reflecting upon the stories I have covered as a reporter here.

After more than two years in Abu Dhabi, I can't help reflecting upon the stories I have covered as a reporter here. None stand out more than the deaths of Dood Khashen and Raja Muhammad Azeem Khan in December. I watched from the street as their bodies, wrapped in white, were lifted from their top-floor flat with a crane. The two men died in a residential apartment fire in the Tourist Club area. The day after Azeem Khan's death, I spoke with his cousin Mohammed Sohrab as he waited to receive his kinsman's body to ship back home to Pakistan.

@body arnhem:Mr Sohrab was responsible for informing Azeem Khan's wife and four daughters about his death. Of course, they were upset. That was only natural. But I still remember Mr Sohrab's moving words about the tragedy. "You have to compromise. What else can you do?" Mr Sohrab said. "If you take everything with anger, maybe it will hurt you, too." He handled the death of his cousin with a beautiful and terrible grace. Unfortunately I don't have that gift of handling the injustices of the world with such equanimity. All I could see was the landlord who failed to maintain the apartment, allowing garbage and junk to pile up in empty rooms and in the abandoned, broken shops on the street.

The lift hadn't worked in over two years. There were no fire exits, no sprinklers and no alarms. Dozens of residents, who were living five bachelors to a room, escaped the blaze by jumping from balconies. Once the fire engines had pulled away and the police tape was taken down, no one stayed behind to help the victims. Some had broken legs and wrists jumping from their flats and were sleeping on the street.

Because some did not have bank accounts, they had lost their meagre savings in the blaze. They were sleeping on friends' floors in other overcrowded apartment blocks. Last week, I spoke with one of the victims of that fire. It took him more than a month to find new accommodations. All his clothing, his furniture and appliances were lost. As one might expect for a man who could only afford to share a single room, he did not have insurance to fall back on.

Since the fire, the Government has drafted a law that should ensure new buildings are fitted out with basic fire safety equipment. However, the rules won't apply to the capital's older buildings, where fires are too common and more deadly due to poor design and age. Last week, I was sent to the scene of another fire. This one was a smaller blaze in a residential building on Al Falah street. Most of the residents were praying when the fire started. Although it consumed five flats, no one died. But 80 were left homeless. Some slept in cars and on the street.

As my colleague Kathryn Lewis reported a few days ago, some are still searching for new housing. And again, there was no one to hand out blankets or offer financial help. Although many had been unable to retrieve wallets left inside their flats for days, no agency was present to offer simple things like food or tea. There were no shelters for them to go to, nor a spare change of clothes. The victims relied upon themselves, their friends and neighbours, many of whom were left to clean the soot-stained walls of their flats.

Several months ago, I sat in on a discussion with Antonio Guterres, the UN High Comissioner for Refugees. Mr Guterres said the UAE has a sterling reputation for helping those afflicted by tragedy abroad. Through actions that are both obvious and discrete, the country helps hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Yet it would take little for us to help the victims of tragedy at home. What little effort would it be to install fire alarms in older buildings, or outfit balconies with emergency rope ladders. Or to be present with a little food, money or shelter when dire circumstance requires it.

Minding the waterlogged garbage and picking my way through the blackened hallways of these apartment complexes, it is hard for me to overlook these failures. Witnessing problems I cannot fix angers me. And according to the gentle words of Mr Sohrab, this is probably unhealthy. The anger will hurt me too. "Everybody has to die. You have to die, I have to die," Mr Sohrab said to me in his shop. "God is responsible for everybody."

I respect his faith, but I wish we could be more responsible for each other as well. @Email:jgerson@thenational.ae