Blaze guts Colombo slum; exposes embers, ugly truths

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by Nabiya Vaffoor and Kanchana Kolagolla

A massive fire ripped through one of the country’s largest slums, on Friday (25) 12:30 a.m. leaving 21 shanties gutted, leaving a number of people homeless.

When Ceylon Today visited the area, nothing but ash remained of the 21 shanties. The area has been cordoned off along with more neighbouring shanties. While visiting the location and the victims, it was observed that the neighbourhood could fall victim to another unfortunate incident at any time. According to Grandpass Police, four fire fighting units from the Colombo Municipal Council were dispatched immediately to douse the fire.

The fire burnt more than 60 shelters, along with the proverbial “veil” covering shanties that keeps most of us blind to the reality. 

Empty promises 

The residents, who had lost everything in the fire, had been promised 400 sqft houses in the Oxygen Flats (Henamulla housing scheme), E-block, yet the promises have been nothing but mere words for more than three years.

“My house was the last to catch fire in this lane and the fire fighters managed to douse it while it was half ablaze. I managed to get some of my belongings; most importantly the documents that we were provided by the Urban Development Authority (UDA) three years ago. They even provided the number of the flat that we were about to get. When we checked the houses, they were closed and the UDA kept telling us to be ready with the key money to be taken from the shanties as soon as the documents are issued,” added Fazna showing us the details and invitation that was given by the UDA. 

When Ceylon Today followed the details provided by Fazna and visited the said block, we were able to find out for a fact that what she said was true. We spoke to the neighbours and they too revealed that E-block has been locked since they moved in, which is more than three years by now. 

“It all happened in a blink of an eye… the only thing that we felt important was our children; we grabbed them and jumped out of the burning house. That’s it… the rest caught fire and we could see our belongings turning into ashes. Some say that we burned our houses deliberately. But who would want to go through such horror by putting their children’s life at stake with all the belongings they have,” questioned Chalani who has been in Kajimawatte for nearly three years and was promised to be given a house in E-block at the Henamulla housing scheme.

“We are ready to move anytime. We were fighting for a proper house even before 2016. Even when they tried to clear Kajimawatte, claiming that it is an unauthorised construction, we protested against it and requested the Government and the UDA to provide us with permanent homes since 2016. When we ask them to let us to build and develop our houses in a safe manner, which won’t be destroyed by rainwater and sudden fires, they still refused to provide permission claiming that we live in unauthorised constructions. We have been given voting rights on the said unauthorised constructions’ addresses and charged water bills too, but when we ask for electricity they refuse to provide it and claim that unauthorised constructions cannot be given electricity,” added Sharmila. 

Such incidents have pushed residents to illegally tap into electricity connections in their area and some have issued summons from the Court because of the misdemeanour. 

Escaping with their lives  

J.K. Gunapala is one of the first to witness the fire outbreak when he came to visit his relatives. He noted that the fire started spreading faster than he can imagine. 

“There isn’t electricity in this area and many use kerosene lamps. These are very dangerous, yet what else can they use. Last year, when the houses in this area were burnt, the politicians and the local government authorities swarmed to provide donations and subsidies. But today it has been more than 12 hours yet not even one politician or local government authority other than the Madampitiya Grama Niladari visited to check whether these people have eaten or whether they are alive,” added Gunapala. 

In the meantime, differently-abled Niluka also noted that she would not have made it if not for her 16-year-old brother‘s help.

“I live with my mother and my siblings. Once they heard the fire break out, my mother sent one of my siblings to help me get out. If not for his help I would have been swept away with the ashes today.”

What the authorities say

Grama Niladhari  Madampitiya, T.R.D. Pradeep Perera said, nearly 80 people had lost their houses and they are now sheltering in a community hall. He added that they have not yet planned on what to do for the lost houses. 

When Ceylon Today inquired about the reason for the Kajimawatte fire, OIC of Grandpass informed that the investigation has been concluded by the analyst, yet refused to reveal the cause of the fire to the media.

Conclusion

There’s a famous saying that the history repeats itself but to the residents at Kajimawatte – it does annually. 

In 15 March 2021, 2:40 a.m. at least 50 houses were damaged and 32 houses have been destroyed in a fire that erupted in a temporary housing line located at Kajimawatte, Grandpass around 2:40 a.m. Authorities suspected the fire had probably been caused by a lamp in one of the homes and it had spread quickly because of the close proximity of the houses. No deaths were reported. Meanwhile, it was also highlighted that neither the UDA nor National Housing Development Authority (NHDA) has any proper documents regarding the land where the fire erupted.

Subsequently, the 32 families, who lost their homes during the fire, were relocated to newly built tenements constructed by the Asia Pacific Alliance for Disaster Management (A-PAD) Sri Lanka, on 9 April at the same location. A-PAD organised the event in coordination with the Disaster Management Centre (DMC), Colombo District Secretariat and the Army led by the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF). 

The recent fire outbreak took place just 100-150 metres away from the location of the previous one. Due to the negligence of the authorities, hundreds of Kajimawatte shelters have turned to ashes. Such incidents occurring two years in a row raises suspicious whether relevant authorities are waiting till an innocent life turns into ash, so, they can finally get a proper roof over their heads. 

(Pix by Manjula Dayawansa)