KARACHI, April 10: When an armed mob set fire to Tahir Plaza in what appears to be a pre-planned attack, the horrifying deaths suffered by six people who were unfortunate enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time illustrate that it is always ordinary citizens who bear the brunt of politically-triggered unrest.
Once the inferno had died down, rescue workers recovered five bodies from the sixth floor office of advocate Haji Aftab Abbasi, who occupied room 616 in the building which housed various lawyers’ offices and lies adjacent to the City Courts. A sixth body was found late Wednesday night and rescue workers told Dawn that it had apparently been wearing bangles, suggesting that at least one woman died in the blaze.
Charred beyond recognition, the bodies were taken to the Sohrab Goth Edhi morgue. While two were taken away by their heirs for burial, Dawn witnessed a number of people at the morgue on Thursday, endeavouring to find in the blackened corpses some evidence identifying them as their missing loved ones.
Amongst these grieving people was Rasheeda Begum, who feared that her relatives Razia Batool (wife of Nadeem) and Sobia (wife of Shoaib Raza) died in the Tahir Plaza arson attack. The sisters-in-law left their Gulistan-i-Jauhar block 9 home on Wednesday afternoon to visit Mr Abbasi in connection with a bail application for a relative. “Razia left her three-year-old child at home,” said Rasheeda Begum in a trembling voice. “It is not possible to identify the bodies by simply looking at them. The investigation officer said that he is in possession of some rings and bangles recovered from these remains – perhaps they will help us in the identification process.”
Waiting outside the morgue on this sombre business, Rasheeda Begum nevertheless held on to a slim ray of hope – that the two women were rescued and taken to some hospital. “I keep praying that their cell phones start working again,” she told Dawn.
No such hope is available to the family of 23-year-old Danish Akhtar and his brother-in-law Syed Dawar Hussain Rizvi, who are confirmed to have been burnt alive during the arson attack.
“Danish was married just a day before his death,” his cousin Ghulam Haider told Dawn. “On Wednesday, he and Dawar went to advocate Aftab Abbasi’s office to collect the marriage certificate. They left home at about noon and at around 3:30pm or so, Danish called his mother and told her that they were soon about to head home. That was the last we heard from him.”
When Haider reached the scene of the arson attack, he found the qazi who had performed Danish’s nikah also there. “He told us that Danish and Dawar were still in the building,” said Haider. “The bodies were burnt beyond recognition. We were able to recognise Danish from a fragment of his trousers and his melted cell phone. He also had a missing tooth, which proved to be key evidence in establishing his identity.”
Danish was laid to rest in Orangi Town on Thursday night. Meanwhile his brother-in-law Dawar was also identified through personal belongings found on the body. “Perhaps it was Dawar’s turn to be called to his Maker yesterday,” said his grieving father Syed Yawar Hussain as family members attempted to console him at the Rizvia Imambargah in the afternoon.
Advocate Abbasi, meanwhile, remained with his clients to the end as he too died in the blaze and was laid to rest in Lyari. The sixth body was identified as that of 35-year-old Basit Mehmood, who the Muttahida Qaumi Movement claims was the brother of one of the party’s workers. His funeral prayers were offered in Azizabad.
Witnesses to Wednesday’s torching of Tahir Plaza termed it a “well-planned and coordinated attack.”
An eyewitness told Dawn that following the clash at the City Courts, about a hundred young men on motorcycles arrived at Tahir Plaza and first ransacked an eatery located on the ground floor. “About half of them entered the building and started beating the caretaker,” he said. “As they entered, some of the people who sensed danger in the air ran out of the building despite being roughed up by the attackers.”
The witness said that the young men went first to the third floor office, room 309, of Naeem Qureshi. “They were carrying China-made padlocks and sacks of what appeared to be a highly-inflammable powder,” he said, a conclusion confirmed by the chief fire officer who said that such a powder had been used in most of the incidents of arson that took place on Wednesday.
“They would first padlock the doors to each office and then break the glass panes with the butts of their pistols and throw in the powder,” said the witness. “After that, a burning match tossed into the room was enough to ignite a full-blown fire.”
The witness told Dawn that in this way, the youths set fire to rooms 309, and 308 which belonged to advocate Tasuvar Hussain, rooms 116 and 117 which belonged to advocate Ali Qureshi as well as rooms 105 and 109 on the first floor.
They repeated the same procedure on the sixth floor, first locking the grille with a china lock and then throwing in the inflammable powder followed by a light. But advocate Aftab Abbasi and five of his clients were trapped in room 616; they were burnt alive by the arsonists’ actions.
Witnesses said that after the building had been thoroughly gutted, the arsonists made good their escape while resorting firing into the air, forcing everyone in the vicinity to dive for cover.