Khurram Javed, Baldia Town, Karachi

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Khurram had been busy since his brother’s death helping other families search for bodies, complete financial compensation paper work, deal with the police, the hospital and morgue formalities and prepare submissions for DNA testing to help identify bodies. Unlike his parents, whose spirits seemed quite broken in the aftermath of their son’s death, Khurram had turned his sorrows into small acts of social activism, conscience and concern. A friend introduced me to him when I had first arrived in Baldia town. I had never been to this part of Karachi even though I was born in the city, had lived the first eighteen years of my life here. Baldia Town’s may as well been a foreign country, and its rhythms and norms were entirely unknown to me. I needed a pair of eyes and ears to help me navigate my way through Baldia Town’s alleys and homes without getting myself into trouble. Khurram was the man.

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 show the precarious nature of the lives of the Pakistani working class. They also give a starting point to understand how the law, legislation and policies of the State have led to creating a vulnerable, and easily exploitable labor force. They show the uses of the law to serve specific economic and planning interests, and weaken worker organization and resistance.

Khurram Ahmed’s brother, Sirjeel Ahmed, who was twenty years old, died in the  fire.

Born and raised in the neighborhood, he seemed to know everyone, remember every alley, and the gossip that lay behind each door. And the people knew him too, and seemed to respect him. They shouted greetings to him from almost every shop we walked by, and others crossed the street to shake his hand. He had worked tirelessly to convince people to refuse the money being paid out and join together for collective action against the company, but it had an uphill and ultimately futile task. People were too desperate to simply walk away from the cash. That however did not stop them from respecting Khurram’s ideas. Many responded to his pleas with apologies, explaining that in a different time, and a different place, they would have stood with him, but that these days things were too difficult.

Walking into homes behind Khurram’s smile, out-reached hand and friendly greetings, opened many doors for me. In fact, so busy and distracted was I with my work, that it was only later that I realized that I never asked him anything about himself. I had even forgotten that Khurram had lost a brother in the fire, and that he too was in mourning. Some days after my return to my studio in Lahore, I was cruelly reminded of my oversight, when I received this text message from him.

Geele Kaghaz Ki Tarah Hai Zindagi Apni
Koi Likhta B Nahi, Koi Jalata B Nahi
Is Qadar Akeley Hogaye Hain Ham Ajj Kal
Koi Satata B Nahi, Koi Manata B Nahi

My existence is like a wet piece of paper
No one can write on it, no one can light it
My loneliness is of such an extreme
No one will entertain me, no one will console me