Rehana Ali, Baldia Town, Karachi

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“Where are the bodies?” The words are thrust out of her throat with great effort, and between deep, heaving breaths. Her children’s bodies were never recovered from the site of the accident, nor found at the hospital or the morgue. Within hours of the tragedy, in the chaos of the aftermath, the situation had become a farce. Bodies had disappeared from the morgue, funerals held, and burial rites conducted. Many families were left running between hospital emergency wards, morgue, and government offices trying to trace bones and blood. There was no registry of factory employees, and difficult to know how many were trapped inside. There was no process for tracking where the injured and dead were being taken. Where ever they went to look, they were told to go elsewhere.

On September 11, 2012, a fire broke out at the Ali Enterprises Garment Factory, in Karachi, Pakistan. A major industrial operation, Ali Enterprises had just weeks earlier been given a prestigious SA8000 safety certificate by the industry funded Social Accountability International (SAI). The fire led to the deaths of nearly 300 workers, and left many thousands of family members homeless and penniless.

The stories of the families of those killed that night reveal the precarious nature of the lives of the Pakistani working class. They also provide a starting point to understand how the law, legislation and policies of the State have weakened worker organization and resistance, and created a vulnerable and exploitable workforce to serve specific economic and political interests.

Syed Azmat Ali and Rehana Ali lost five of their children in the fire – Zoya, aged 25, Aijaz, aged 22, Samaa, aged 19, Sumera, aged 17 and Ruhab, aged 17. Their youngest son, Azeer, aged 14, the only one who did not work in the factory, survives and is currently studying in Kotri, Hyderabad.

DNA tests later confirmed the worst; families had performed funeral rituals using the wrong corpses, while others had taken bodies just to claim financial compensation from private charitable organizations and government agencies. Families kept looking for weeks, traveling from one corner of the city to the other in the hope of some clue, some trace. But many never found anything. “Where are my children’s bodies?” It was an inexplicable and incomprehensible situation. Her children had not just died that night, but their physical remains had just vanished. There would be no closure, no solace, or last farewell. There would be no last rites.

I see an envelope of photographs lying next to her and ask her if she has photos of her children. She hands me the envelope.

“There had been an offer of marriage for Zoya,” she tells me. “We had these photos made at a studio to share them with the boy’s family.”

I look at one of the studio shots: four young girls, standing in the same order as the photographs are now laid out, dupattas covering their heads, each dressed in a bright, embroidered silk. They smile at the camera, standing close to each other in that playful way that only siblings can. Bright, sharp, saturated color, a hand-painted idyllic rural scene as a photo backdrop.

“You see the outfits they are wearing?” She points to the photograph, “The girls had made them with their own hands.”

She moves the photos around and arranges them in front of me, in order of the ages of the girls, from the youngest on the left to the oldest; Ruhab, Sumera, Saba and Zoya. They were the first women in the family to leave the home to find work, just as they had been the first to go to school. Azmat had told me this earlier. Rehana slowly collects the photos and places them one by one back in the envelope.

“They were my friends. They were not just my children.”

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I hear birdsong. I look through the door and see a small birdcage with parrots in it. Who was fond of parrots? I ask.

“The girls bought them for us.” her husband Azmat Ali answers. He gets up and walks towards the birdcage and stands along it whistling to them. It’s the only time I see him leave the sofa.

“This is how they used to whistle to these birds,” He says. “They had bought them to keep us company.”

He opens the door and runs a finger through the feed box. I hear Rehana’s voice from the other room.

“The girls used to say that the bird song would keep us entertained while they were away at work.” He lifts the gate of the cage and drops in some fresh seeds.

“The singing would keep the house filled with song.” He adds. Later, he asks me to photograph the birds.