x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Villas remain crowded a year after deadly blaze

More than a year after fire ripped through a house, killing 11, the municipality insists that it is working to stop dangerous overcrowding in villas.

DUBAI // More than a year after fire ripped through a house in Naif, killing 11 men and injuring dozens of others, the municipality insists that it is "working day and night" to stop dangerous overcrowding in villas. However, next to the empty lot that was the site of last year's fire, another villa still provides shelter for hundreds of workers.

"This has 400 to 500 people," said an Indian resident of the villa, who did not want to give his name. "I am new here, but I am sure there are hundreds here." Fire ripped through the two-storey villa in the early hours of August 26, 2008, as many of its residents were asleep. It was said to have been occupied by about 500 people, crammed into small, subdivided rooms. It was one of the deadliest fires in Dubai in recent times. The building was razed last month, a neighbour said.

Many of those living there at the time of the fire saw charred bodies being carried from the burnt-out building. But they said the risks were not enough to deter them from a cheap, if crowded, existence. "I saw the bodies being removed after the fire," one occupant of a neighbouring villa said. "What can we do? We have to forget it and move on." Naif has many such villas. In the same street, there appeared to be several others overcrowded with single men. The area is home to thousands of bachelors, mostly from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as from African and other Arab countries.

They work as labourers, cleaners, office boys and drivers, and often do other odd jobs to supplement their income. They live in cramped rooms and overcrowded villas to save on accommodation costs, thereby risking their lives. "This is home for us," said Akram Alam, a Bangladeshi who works in an electronics store in Deira. "Even if it's a tough life, we will not move from here." Mr Alam spends his day transporting goods to various offices and is exhausted by the end of his shift.

"All I look for by night is food and a bed to sleep," he said. "Why should I care about who else is in the room?" He shares a room with five others and a villa with many more. He said so many people walked in and out of the villa that he had stopped counting. The two-storey villa next to the site of last year's fire remains similarly crowded. The walls are dirty, and its rooms are crammed with overloaded clothes lines and exposed electrical wires.

Despite the risks, residents said they had no intention of leaving. "Why should we leave?" asked Mohammed Mohammed Khan, a Pakistani taxi driver. "Why should we be scared? A fire can happen even in a high-rise building. We have seen that in Dubai. No one can say how long they will live." Omar Mohammed Abdul Rahman, the head of buildings inspection in Dubai, said there had been 14,000 violations recorded since the launch of the villas campaign last year.

Inspectors were dispatched to many neighbourhoods, including Al Rashidiya, Umm Suquiem, Satwa and Naif, to ensure that villas were occupied only by single families. Health and safety regulations were more strictly enforced in labour camps as well, officials said. But residents said the changes had been mostly cosmetic. There is fresh paint on the walls, for instance, and the gas cylinders have been consolidated into one area.

Cooking is done only in one place, rather than sites scattered throughout the compound. "Individual cylinders are not allowed now," a villa occupant said. "All are kept in one place." pmenon@thenational.ae