WHERE there were shops not more than 48 hours ago, are lie just debris and ashes. Outside the ill-fated building, those who lost everything; lifelong investments and the source of their livelihood, sit in wait for the gutted shell of Arshi Shopping Centre to be cleared by the authorities.

They are waiting for permission to enter so they can see if anything is left salvageable, other than hope.

The entire day, the scene of the blaze has been at the centre of photo shoots by NGOs, empty speeches by political leaders and attempts by senior security officers to appease the victims of the blaze, who are fast losing patience with the pace of developments.

Sixty-seven-year-old Syed Rafi Ahmed owned a garments shop. We found him sobbing inconsolably, staring at the burnt-out remains of what was once his bread and butter.

“I have been here throughout the night. I invested my retirement money in this shop. That was all I had, around Rs6 million. No one has told us what comes next. How am I going to earn?” he said, between sobs.

“I have no hopes from the government. This is not the first time a mall has faced situation. Look what happened with them?” he questioned.

But among the despondent crowds, there are also some still clinging to the hope that they will be able to save something or the other. These are the energetic ones engaged in a protest to be let back inside.

“Some people went inside and they told us that our shops are not completely destroyed. All we are asking for is to be let inside so we can take our things out. They are saying they will let us go inside in the night, but what will we find in the dark? And if we wait until the morning, you know quite well many of our things will have been looted,” said Faseeh, who owned an abaya shop in the mall.

As they continued to protest, one of their acquaintances came and told Faseeh that “Brigadier sahib will be coming and he will have a meeting with us at 5pm.” Upon hearing this, the protest was called off.

The shop owners are not the only ones desperate to get back inside and examine the extent of the damage.

Muhammad Ishaq, who lived in a residential flat, told Dawn that he had been able to access his apartment.

“I had hope that some parts of my house would have been spared, but there is nothing left. All the cash, gold, furniture, documents of the apartment, everything is gone.”

Recalling the moment when fire erupted, he said he took his family, ran towards the parking area as the lift area was choked, sat in his car and left.

He said the rate at which fire was spreading, even a delay of a few minutes could have been disastrous.

Firefighter Ateeq-ur-Rehman, who had pulled out bodies from the ill-fated RJ Shopping Mall just days ago, was also part of the operation here. He told Dawn that the fire in the Arshi Shopping Centre was far worse than the previous one.

A source also told Dawn that while everyone continued to blame the incident on a mattress shop, it was basically a cylinder blast that caused the incident. “The cylinder in a shop caught fire and when a man threw it outside the shop, it exploded, setting fire to the mattress dealership.”

Caretaker Sindh Chief Minister Maqbool Baqar also visited the centre and promised traders and residents their losses would be assessed and that “the government will try to support them”.

Holding the Sindh Building Control Authority responsible, the chief minister lamented that had they implemented the building codes, such a huge fire would not have claimed lives and reduced apartments and shops to ashes.

Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan convener Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui also met the affected people, along with other party leaders.

He questioned the authority of the caretaker CM and said that the city had been turned into a jungle. Then, he corrected himself, saying: “Even a jungle has some laws”.

Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2023

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