Grenfell: ‘Don’t dig dagger deeper by not taking responsibility’

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London, England – At around 1:05am on June 14, 2017, 70-year-old Ruks Mamudi woke up in her ground floor flat in Grenfell Tower to use the toilet.

A pandemonium of noise and screaming drew her to an open window where she often watched the underground tube carriages hurtle through Latimer Road Station. 

Unable to see what was happening, she screamed into the darkness: “What’s going on?” 

A voice from below shouted back: “Fire! Get out!” 

She went to her 12-year-old grandson, Tyrshondre, who lay sleeping in his bed. 

“I tried to wake the boy, but he didn’t wake up, so I picked up my bag, my car keys, put on my slippers, and I carried him. I don’t know how I got the energy,” she said from her home in South Kensington. “If there was a fire, there should have been an alarm, but there was nothing. It was only the chaotic noise of people running helter-skelter, screaming.” 

When Mamudi opened the front door, she was blinded by black plumes of smoke. 

Ruks Mahmudi, a former resident of Grenfell Tower [Aina Khan/Al Jazeera]

A few hours later, the blackened skeleton of Grenfell Tower stood on the horizon of west London, an unburied coffin where at least 72 people were killed in the largest fire since the Second World War. As she groped her way blindly to the staircase, she fell. Mamudi and her grandson eventually dragged themselves outside to safety as an inferno raged up the tower. 

Within hours, volunteers and aid workers flocked to the disaster site. 

Lotifa Begum, an aid worker from Muslim Aid, was among the first to arrive.

The scale of the chaos she saw unfold was unprecedented and required decisive action.

But the response from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) council who were responsible for the area was “appalling”, she told Al Jazeera.

“The council did not provide adequate temporary housing in the days following the fire so one of the main response centres, Westway Sports Centre, became a gym full of mattresses,” she said. 

The response instead came from the voluntary sector and local community.

“One of the key things the council also failed in was meeting the culturally-sensitive needs of the families affected, such as providing long-term counselling from a faith or cultural standpoint. We brought in counsellors who could speak Arabic and Persian, languages that the community understood. The council was not aware of these needs until we brought it to their attention,” Begum said.

“I’ve worked in the disaster and humanitarian sector for so long, but I didn’t expect to see a disaster like this in the UK with such a lack of effective coordination.”

A photo of the first named victim, Mohammed Alhajali, can be seen at the Grenfell memorial close to the Westway flyover [Aina Khan/Al Jazeera]

The Grenfell inquiry set up last year to examine the circumstances leading up to the tragedy began its second phase in May, with bereaved families and friends commemorating the memory of their loved ones. 

But the process has been a source of re-traumatisation for survivors and the bereaved.

Nour-eddine Aboudihaj is the Grenfell coordinator at Journey of Hope, a support service for those impacted by the fire. 

A softly spoken man who works with Al Manaar Muslim Cultural Centre, a mosque nearby to Grenfell which took in survivors that morning, Aboudihaj has been a reliable guardian.

“Some people have panic attacks, some can’t stay on their own, and some have flashbacks, so they want somebody to talk to, to help them. They don’t want to be on their own, so they will call or text me, and I’ll be there as soon as I can to help reassure them,” he said.

Some of the Grenfell residents for whom Arabic is a first language have sought out Aboudihaj.

“When people are in that state of grief and sorrow, they want to speak in their own language, because that’s how they express their innermost feelings,” he said.

At least 72 people were killed in the Grenfell Tower disaster [File: AP] 

Several funerals were held in quick succession in the community.

“There were [funerals] twice, sometimes three times a week,” he said. “That was very difficult for the community because these were people we used to see in the congregation for prayers, in local schools. The ripple effect is global because even though it happened here, we’ve seen families from all over the world who have been affected.” 

The government and local council continue to be castigated over their response. Half of the Grenfell residents are yet to be permanently rehoused, despite promises they would all be rehoused within a year. 

Mamudi spent eight months in a hotel room, where the windows were permanently shut, before being relocated.

‘Institutional racism’

In a statement at the inquiry, Imran Khan QC, a lawyer for some of the bereaved and survivors, said that in talking about Grenfell, it was necessary to consider whether religion, class and “institutional racism” factored into the council and the Tenant Management Organisation’s (TMO) negligence of the tower residents.

It is a sentiment that resonates with Mamudi.

“There are some people who have lived in that tower for 40 years and they have been complaining, and nobody would listen to them because they are immigrants,” she said.

Don’t dig the dagger and make the wound deeper by not taking responsibility.

Fahim Mazhary, an interfaith and diversity consultant

Aboudihaj, too, said that while the community had mobilised, assistance from local and central government had been “minimal” and that residents’ concerns remain unaddressed. 

“There was blatant disregard of people’s concerns before the fire, and it still seems to be the case even after the fire,” he said. “People are still not being heard. A lot of people are concerned that there are a lot of tower blocks that still have combustible cladding.”

Only last month, a review into the fire led by Dame Judith Hackett was met with criticism after it failed to recommend a ban on combustible cladding.

Fahim Mazhary (right) and Catholic priest Fr Gerard Skinner (left) holding the Grenfell banner at the national memorial service [Courtesy: Ramadan Tent Project]

Fahim Mazhary, an interfaith and diversity consultant, knew several residents including Shekeb Neda, a friend of his sons who was trapped on the top floor with his parents. 

Neda spoke to Mazhary by phone and asked him about the London Fire Brigade’s message to residents to stay put.

“He asked me, ‘Uncle, what would you advise me? They’re [the fire brigade] telling us to stay put.’ I said to him, ‘My son, don’t listen to anybody. Do what you think is right, this is life and death’.” 

Neda heroically lifted his disabled mother out of the building to safety, but his father stayed in the tower. He later jumped from the block and died.

To the sheer frustration of the survivors, accountability remains elusive as calls grow louder for those responsible to be arrested.

“Lessons have to be learned. If they’re not, people would have died all in vain. It looks like perpetual denial. Why don’t they just own up take responsibility?” said Mazhary. “Don’t dig the dagger and make the wound deeper by not taking responsibility.”

Protesters gather in Parliament Square as MPs debate ongoing concerns surrounding the official inquiry into the Grenfell fire disaster on May 14, 2018, in London [Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

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