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Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Eyewitnesses recount scene at Karachi stampede

Eighteen people were suffocated to death during a stampede here on Monday as poverty-stricken women battled for a free bag of flour being distributed by a philanthropist in Khohri Garden. The dead reportedly include a number of children as well.
Meanwhile, several unconscious women were rushed to the emergency ward of the Civil Hospital in Karachi. The incident sparked anger among women and their relatives gathered at the hospital, many of whom had come from far flung areas of the city such as Kaemari, Machhar Colony, Surjani Town among others. They blamed the government for failing to facilitating the distribution of flour.
However, government officials present at the hospital said the philanthropist, Chaudhry Iftikhar, had not contacted the Saddar Town administration or the local police for any arrangements in the area and began distributing the flour in a narrow lane Khohri Garden that caused the women to suffocate.
‘I am sure even he had no idea what this could lead to. Had he sought the government’s help, these deaths could have been avoided,’ said Sharmila Farooqui, Adviser to CM Sindh during her visit to the hospital. She further added that Chaudhry Iftikhar has been arrested and that the Chief Minister has promised a compensation of Rs0.1 million for the families of the victims.
The presence of several ministers, including the Sindh Health Minister Dr Sagheer Ahmed, however, failed to comfort the injured women who blamed them for the state they were in.
‘I would have never come here to get flour if the inflation rate was not as high. The price hike this year has made it difficult for us to feed our large families and the government does not seem to care. Every day I stand in long queues to purchase atta (flour) at Rs10 per kg, but return home empty-handed. Today, when I heard that free flour was being distributed by someone, I immediately rushed to try my luck here as well,’ said Amina, a maid at a government school in Lyari.
‘As soon as I reached out to get a bag of flour, two women jumped on my back and I fell down. The crowd stepped on me and I couldn’t breathe for a while and then fell unconscious. My neighbour brought me to the hospital.’
There were others who witnessed the deaths during the stampede, especially when the police resorted to baton-charging to control the crowd.
‘When the police arrived on the scene, they began controlling the situation by hitting women with sticks. That is when the crowd got even more out of control,’ 18-year-old Noorun Nissa, an eyewitness told Dawn.com.
‘My hand and leg got stuck and I could feel someone stepping on my foot. It felt very heavy. When I managed to move some women out of my way, I saw dead bodies of children lying in my feet. I don’t know where their mothers were,’ she recalled.
Noor is one of the six sisters in her household and her father, a tailor, is the sole breadwinner of the house. ‘Women in our Baloch community are not permitted to work so there is nothing we can do to support our family financially. It is becoming increasingly difficult to make ends meet that is why I thought this was an opportunity. After hearing about the deaths of over 18 women, I am at least glad I survived and only sprained my ankle.’
Amina added that although this is her yearly routine, the turnout of women in bachat bazaars is much more this Ramazan. ‘I don’t just have my family to feed but that of my sisters as well who are widows and live with me. I visit these bachat bazaars every year to buy essentials at subsidised rates and end up making a lot of friends as I stand in a queue. This year I noticed that women were not only from poverty-stricken areas like Lyari and Machhar Colony but other low and middle-income localities of the city as well.’
Since men are away from home during the day, it is mostly women who end up spending most of their day outside utility stores. When asked if she would think of heading to a free ration stall after Monday’s episode, Amina said: ‘Yes I will. It is the woman’s responsibility to look after the family. And I will do anything to feed my children,
even if I have to risk my life.’
An old woman Mariam was lying in a state of semi-consciousness with a drip pierced into her arm. ‘I don’t know how it all started. I was inside the room located on the first floor of the building, while my sister was waiting outside for me when all of a sudden women started pushing and screaming.
'The force of the pressure was so much that I broke my ribs. It’s a miracle that I survived somehow, though I saw other women inside being crushed to death before my eyes. Only a while back, things were normal and I was waiting after receiving my token for the free rations that were being distributed. But, sadly I got no rations despite having waited since morning. And now I’m here in a hospital bed.’

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