Fanning the flames in Karachi

September 17, 2012


Last year, against all advice, I flew from London to Karachi.  In a short time I saw what an immensely diverse, multi-faceted city it was – with its demons, but with its angels too.  And plenty in between.

Both my writing and art explores the perception of places as presented in the media.  Karachi is often presented as a grim, backward, and violent city – its plurality, commercial centres, beach and hospitable inhabitants overlooked.  I would argue that a constant focus on the negative is not useful, and can at times fuel pessimism and stunt development.

Last Tuesday, a factory fire that lasted for 15 hours killed close to 300 people in Karachi. I was devastated – not simply because of the tragic loss of life, but because of how the raging flames were broadcast around the world.  Alongside the images of charred remains and of weeping women in headscarves, the words of corruption, of a disregard for safety and even terrorism begin to spill out.  Reinforcing the ill-informed notion that this city – and this country – is home to people who value life less – and live a wild and precarious existence.

As the factory owners are arrested, politicians resign and Pakistanis are asked to blame themselves for the loss, my thoughts turn to the glowing embers of human compassion and bravery witnessed in the past week.

When something very bad happens, whether bought about by human folly or natural disaster, human beings can be remarkable. The media is slow to report on this, but I constantly seek dramatic examples of heroism in such circumstances. In the past I have been moved by The Red Cross in Gaza, the response of passers-by during the bombing of the US Embassy in Kenya in 1998, and the life-threatening rescue of flood victims in Colombia.  With every tragedy such examples can be found – and should be reported on. When I asked Karachi friends for any news of such bravery following the factory fire, several of them mentioned a television report of one man, who emerged from the fire unscathed but returned to rescue his three sisters and mother. It appears he did not survive. Scouring news channels for other examples I found none – but I will guarantee that there were lots: Those who fought the flames, the driver of the crane that slammed into the building making an escape hole, the medical staff battling to save the lives of those injured and those who have the task of removing remains.  If you know more about them, please share them here.  If you don’t contemplate that they do exist.

I also implore journalists in Karachi to hunt down these empowering, uplifting stories and share them far and wide. It’s not that I am untouched by the trauma of such events, nor that we shouldn’t seek inquiries into why such things happen or compensation for loss. But I feel strongly that the immense power of recovery, resilience, bravery in the face of horrendous adversity such as this needs to be covered. There are angels, as well as demons – and the angels help us better.


Caroline Jaine is a UK based writer and artist with a background in media strategy, diplomacy and community cohesion. Her book  A Better Basra, about her time in Iraq was published in August 2011. She is currently planning a solo exhibition in London "See Karachi" touching on the perception of Pakistan in the media.  More about Caroline’s work and her contact details can be found here and on facebook.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.