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On the ground at Grenfell, residents’ suspicion of a cover-up isn’t going away

Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations

July 16, 2017
24 min read

Tributes around the estate. Photos: Hsiao-Hung Pai

Just past midnight on 14 June, Mushtaq Lasharie had just returned home from a celebratory dinner with his friends and colleagues in the Labour Party. It was only a few days after the election when Corbyn and his politics had given the country a surprising result. Having dragged himself back to his ground floor flat on the Lancaster West Estate, Mushtaq changed into comfortable home-wear, getting ready to sit in front of the computer to catch up with the news.

Around 54 minutes past midnight, Mushtaq heard noise outside his flat. His first thought was: it was probably some people having a fight, possibly over a domestic issue, as sometimes happened on the estate. But there came more noise. People were calling out ‘help, help, call the fire brigade!’ Then Mushtaq looked out his window and saw that the 24-storey Grenfell Tower, just twenty yards away from him, was on fire.

He had to do something. People in that tower were his neighbours and friends. Mushtaq woke his family. His son, his daughter, daughter-in-law. Four of them rushed outside while his wife stayed with their two grandchildren who were still asleep.

‘We wanted to help,’ he told me with frustration, ‘But we couldn’t. The fire was already at the middle of the building by then. It was spreading fast, from one corner, to three flats, then to five…’

No one heard a fire alarm. Residents inside Grenfell were only woken by screams and shouts from their neighbours inside and outside the tower block desperately trying to alert people about the fire and get them out. Those who were lucky enough to get out were gathering outside the building, wanting to get back in, to help others.

“The first family came out of the building at around 1.45. We know them,” said Mushtaq. “Their kids play with our children. They’re from Morocco. We were very pleased that they were safe.”

Around 2.30, seeing that the fire had escalated fast, Mushtaq’s daughter, Beinazir Lasharie, a Labour councillor, was panicking, crying and shouting. ‘Let’s go up to help children up there,’ she said to her dad.

Mushtaq recalled: ‘We saw one person jump from the window. And a child was thrown out from up there, the ninth floor, I think. Every one of us was very upset and wanted to go up to help people. But we were stopped by the police.’

Global working class

The Lancaster West Estate, where Grenfell Tower is located, is an ethnically diverse area, just like many social housing neighbourhoods across Britain. The global working class converge in these impoverished inner-city areas. Grenfell residents came from everywhere: Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, the Philippines, Thailand, and so on.

Since the tragedy, when you walk through streets where Grenfell residents put up ‘missing person’ notices on church walls, outside pubs, under the walkways and on almost every lamppost, you see names and faces of the world’s citizens who weren’t born or had grown up in this country, some of them having only lived here for a few years.

Mushtaq Lasharie
‘We know a family, with three children, who were living on the 21st floor. They are from Sudan,’ says Mushtaq. ‘One of the children was in the same nursery as my grandson. They only came to this country two years ago, and I don’t think they were well connected with people here.

‘Two years is a short time. The wife was very close to my wife and daughter because of their children… They’re still missing. I don’t think they stood a chance.’

A family of three was also missing from the 23rd floor flat. The mother, named Rania Ibrahim, messaged friends and livestreamed a video to Facebook from her flat as the fire rose through the tower. By then, the blaze was such that she had given up the hope of escaping on her own with the children. She comforted them while the smoke was coming through her door. Soon, her battery ran out; no one has heard from her since. Her husband was in Egypt at the time.

Mushtaq mentioned the name Mohamed al-Haj Ali several times. He is one of the first people confirmed dead and identified, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee. Mushtaq was haunted by the terrible fate that ended this young man’s life in that tower. He himself was once a refugee. 34 years ago, he was a trade unionist and socialist in Pakistan and, fearing persecution, he had to change his name and looks. When he fled the dictatorship to seek refuge in Britain, he had a bounty on his head. He will always remember the date and time of his arrival in a ‘land of freedom’: 7pm, 12 June, 1981. His wife and three children joined him several days later.

Every day now, he sees the charred shell of the tower and the debris around it when he opens the back door of his flat, and thinks how unjust all this is.

Many of the Grenfell residents worked in London’s low-paid menial jobs, as cleaners, porters and catering workers. The labour of migrants and ethnic minority workers in Grenfell not only sustained their families but also kept the city going. Some of the migrants from the tower would be workers selling their cheap labour in the southern part of Kensington.

Such cosmopolitanism might mean adding ‘colour’ to the consumer lifestyle for the urban middle-class, but for the global workers, it means below-average wages as well as poor and often unsafe living conditions.

Before the Grenfell fire, every visit I made to the borough was to see migrant domestic workers, from the Philippines and India, who were struggling to endure subhuman working conditions in the households of the wealthy: the multinational businessmen, the diplomats, the super models and movie stars. Some of them kept their domestic workers starved and sleeping on kitchen floors. Some never paid workers a penny. So many domestic workers in this borough hadn’t run away from their abusive employers because the immigration rules didn’t allow them to change bosses. Since then, I had always associated Kensington with exploitation and the slave workers that were kept behind closed doors of the rich.

People without capital

Global workers – the people without capital – have always fought against the tide when they demand justice. They could even vanish as if they had never existed. Many in the Filipino communities, for instance, were talking about the missing. Reydeluz Conferido, of the Philippines embassy, revealed that information about the victims – including the numbers – has not been made available to the community, even to survivors. Do people not deserve to know?

It’s understood that some Filipino migrants caught up in the fire are undocumented and therefore haven’t been able to come forward. Although the embassy couldn’t verify this, Conferido believes that the government’s immigration policy is likely to be the main reason for some of the survivors’ silence. The undocumented migrants also wouldn’t be able to access payment from the government’s emergency fund. For the global workers, immigration status determines the level of support they’ll be receiving.

Currently, through church organisations and grassroots efforts, the Philippines embassy has been able to contact eight Filipino families who survived. One of the two survivors with regular immigration status who the embassy’s welfare officer has spoken to is a domestic worker working in London. She had three people, including her partner, with her in the flat at the time of the fire. They all escaped.

Another Filipino survivor with whom embassy staff had spoken is a restaurant chef. The two are staying in temporary accommodation at the moment; the embassy is also providing financial assistance to them. Some survivors are still receiving treatment in hospital, one of them still in critical condition. The survivors have had received no real support from the authorities, let alone being given any post-traumatic stress counselling.

The utter contempt with which residents of Grenfell were treated by the authorities is the way this city has treated its global working-class. They were never listened to. Their disenfranchisement is permanently tied to their lack of citizenship or regular immigration status. They have no voice, no representation. When the residents informed the authorities about safety issues of the building before the fire, time and time again they were ignored.

The Grenfell Action Group, as is now widely known, had attempted numerous times to raise fire safety issues with the council and its social housing management agent KCTMO, to no avail. This was despite a power surge incident at Grenfell in 2013 that was found to be caused by faulty wiring, and then a serious fire at Adair Tower in north Kensington two years later. Instead, Grenfell residents were informed by a notice stuck in their lift that they should remain their flats in the event of fire. The residents’ concerns were treated as irrelevant.

Mushtaq didn’t sleep the night of the fire. He and his family watched the tower burn in front of their eyes, feeling utterly powerless. At around 2.30 to 3.00, he and his family were evacuated from the estate. ‘We picked up our things, like nappies for the grandchildren, and all of us went to my son’s house outside the area.’ Those trapped in the tower continued waiting desperately for rescue. They’d been waiting for hours. Some families were rescued after 4.00, although those above the twelfth floor stood little chance of getting out.

‘At 9am, I came back to Grenfell to try to help out,’ says Mushtaq, ‘Charities of all faiths were doing a marvellous job. But neither national nor local government were there. The leader of the council had disappeared…’

What is the true death toll?

Mushtaq was surprised to hear the initial death toll of six. ‘I thought the victims would be between 80 and 200… Then we were given briefing by the police and fire service that you cannot give the number until the bodies have been identified and certified. And of course on the first day they weren’t even able to go into the flats… They announced the death toll in stages so that people can take it in, so they won’t panic and start a riot.’

As estimated by several local residents, around 60 families out of the 129 households managed to escape without rescue from the tower block the night of the fire. According to local residents I talked to in the first two weeks after the fire, there were many still unaccounted for. Numerous notices were put up in the neighbourhood, by families looking for their loved ones. Friends and neighbours of those missing were also trying to help. Some put up posters on the windscreen of cars parked in the area. There’s a strong sense of helplessness among residents here; solidarity is all they’ve got.

A boy of eight or nine was standing alone by a missing person’s wall, staring at the written messages that have been dedicated to a 15-year-old girl. He stood there for a while, reading the messages one by one. Then he turned to tell me, ‘She’s my friend. Her brother’s missing, too. I know the family.’ This missing 15-year-old girl lived on the 21st floor, and since the night of the fire, she had not been found and neither had her parents and two siblings.

Later, the 15-year-old girl’s cousin, who lives next to Grenfell, described her to me. ‘She’s sporty, funny, and protective of her family. I love her.’ He is of the same age as her and went to the same school. They were close. ‘She would have turned 16 yesterday,’ he said. Her father worked in the hospital and mum was a housewife, looking after their 9-year-old son at home. That tragic night, her cousin and his family were awake for Ramadan, and quickly ran to the tower as soon as they were called by the relatives inside. But they, like everyone else, were helpless. The blaze was consuming the building and there was nothing they could do.

Given the horrific loss of life and the level of destruction, the residents were shocked and angry that they were treated as if they were not entitled to full information. The latest death toll of 80 was released by the police on 28 June as a result of mounting pressure from the community following the announcement of ’79 dead or missing presumed dead’ more than a week before. It still has not been updated. The police also said then that the final death toll will not be known until the end of the year.

Ishmahil Blagrove, activist and coordinator of Justice4Grenfell, a coalition made up of Grenfell survivors, local residents and their supporters, said that the police’s refusal to even publish an estimate was making people suspicious of a cover-up. ‘People are rightly feeling that because of their circumstances,’ he said, ‘People need to know how the police have come up with the number of victims.’

Sajad Jamalvatan, a student who lived on the third floor, has set up a Whatsapp group of 86 families who escaped from the tower block, naming the group Grenfell United. He estimates the number of victims to be above 120.

Under increasing community pressure, the police released further information on 10 July, nearly a month after the tragedy, that 350 people (an estimate based on census and school registers, with police’s methodology unexplained) were in the building the night of the fire and 255 survived. They now also said that the death toll will remain ‘at around 80’, though their own numbers now appear to add up to more than 80. While the police denied the community’s concern that many more people were still missing, many local residents continue to be suspicious of a cover-up.

Fear of a riot

Four days after the fire, a reliable source who worked with the police revealed to me that a police officer had told him the death toll then was 170. The officer said to the source, they claim, that the gradual release of number of victims is to ‘avoid a riot’. Several firefighters were also reported to have been told by their management not to talk about the death toll, which they said is higher than announced.

Meanwhile, according to a Notting Hill resident, Alice, there was a huge sense of fear of rioting in the wealthier neighbourhoods surrounding Grenfell. ‘It’s because of the history of rioting, many local people have been worried that the anger over Grenfell will lead to trouble,’ she said, ‘They were worried particularly when “Day of Rage” protesters were marching from Shepherds Bush to Parliament Square… Some people found that kind of ideology [of the protesters] too extreme and were very concerned about their talk of “bringing down the government”.’

This kind of concern about law and order among the wealthier communities in the borough – and the damage a riot might do to their properties and their property values – could say something about why there has been a lack of information from the police regarding the Grenfell death toll.

Mushtaq said he’d never seen such a fire in his life. ‘It is unique in the Western world,’ he said. Perhaps it could happen in China, India or Brazil, but not in a ‘first-world’ country like Britain. The day following the fire, an asylum seeker from Nigeria, who I befriended in Catania, Sicily, called and asked if I was alright. He told me the reason for his worry that it might have affected me directly was that ‘they’re all immigrants in that tower’, as he put it. ‘How could it happen in London?’ he said. This is not an unusual image he has for a developed country – this is not only one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but one that, in his eyes, respects human lives.

‘It’s contempt,’ I said to him. It is the contempt with which the elite treated the global working-class that fundamentally caused this tragedy. Cladding is now a poignant signifier for that contempt.

Cutting corners

Today there is controversy as shadow chancellor John McDonnell defends his assertion that Grenfell victims were ‘murdered by political decisions’.

It is clear that lives were lost for the sake of cost-saving: documents obtained by the BBC show that the zinc cladding originally proposed during the refurbishment was replaced with a less fire-resistant aluminium type, which saved £300,000. (But even of this cheaper material, a more fire-resistant version was available for just £5,000 more.) To date, the majority of the social housing tower blocks that have been tested for fire safety failed the test. The contempt is deep-seated.

‘In the last seven years, our councils have been cutting corners to meet budget requirements,’ says Mushtaq. ‘ln this case the resources were there. They spent £10 million on refurbishing the tower, but didn’t manage to make it safe. Not only is there the problem with cladding, there should be sprinklers installed in tower blocks. There should be more than one exit. The council didn’t even properly test the fire alarms.’

Beinazir Lasharie and her son

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the council has continued to treat residents with contempt. Beinazir Lasharie has been deeply traumatised as she witnessed her community being destroyed. Not only have the tower’s management never shown their face in public, she’s furious that the council has not even bothered to meet the residents. ‘The cabinet should be held responsible for the tragedy. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it,’ she said.

Beinazir has been staying in temporary accommodation in Victoria since the fire. ‘The hotel room isn’t very good, but I can’t let my two children stay here next to the tower. The air isn’t clean here.’ Meanwhile, Beinazir has to come back to the area in the daytime for her work and also send her children to school.

Only a dozen survivors from Grenfell tower have accepted the given temporary accommodation. This is because they are very worried how long the temporary housing will be – and whether it would take years for them to be moved to permanent homes.

Unequal consequences

The entire Lancaster West Estate is suffering. There’s no hot water in all the households on the estate, and many don’t have gas, either. 398 families on the surrounding estates are currently staying in temporary accommodation, not only because of the lack of hot water supply, but also because people are just so emotionally affected by what happened. His daughter-in-law has been so upset by the tragedy that she doesn’t want to move back to the area again. Beinazir is concerned that this is the way the local authorities are attempting their ‘social cleansing’ – to move residents out of the area.

Many children in the neighbourhoods have been badly affected by the tragedy. Mushtaq pointed to an academy next to the leisure centre and told me it’s been closed as several children had died. It means that 700 children have been put in temporary schools.

This distressing situation is a world apart from what Mushtaq remembered of the borough when he arrived three decades ago. Back then, when he applied for refugee status, he was placed in asylum housing in Bayswater, and because he had a friend who lived in a B&B in Earl’s Court, he moved to be near him and coincidentally became a resident in Kensington.

‘There wasn’t the wealth gap we see today,’ he said, ‘It used to be a much more welcoming, compassionate and humane place… Tony Benn used to live here and became a friend of mine. I became a member of the Labour Party as soon as I started living here. Tony Benn inspired me and together with a team we founded the Third World Solidarity in 1986… One of my main aims is to influence politics and develop democracy in my home country. I’ve also known Jeremy Corbyn for three decades now.

‘I was appointed a trustee and vice-chair of a church-run community centre. It showed how welcoming this place was, for someone who just came from Pakistan as a refugee…’ Mushtaq was later elected a Labour councillor in Kensington & Chelsea in 1992 and had been for 18 years.

‘But gradually this place became more and more selfish and opportunistic… With the arrival of Thatcherism came social exclusion and isolation.’ His time was also very unhappy under New Labour. ‘Everything I stood for, the central government under Blair’s Labour was doing the opposite,’ he said.

‘Our borough is now extremely divided. We have the largest number of billionaires and millionaires, and the largest number of graduates – 54 per cent of residents in this borough are graduates. 54 per cent of the children go to private education… There’s a house that’s worth £400 million on Kensington Palace Road, 180 embassies and offices are there. A very rich borough.’ As he spoke, the image came into my mind of some well-dressed, ‘clean’-looking white middle-class residents with their prams whom I saw wandering around Lancaster West Estate last week as if for some ‘tragedy tourism’. They’d have come from the south part of the borough.

Mushtaq continued: ‘On the other end, if you look at Lancaster West Estate, or other social housing, it’s a completely different story. We used to have 10,000 homes, now reduced to 7,000 homes as result of Thatcher’s right to buy. Since then, social housing has been taken over by housing associations; it has been sold off or demolished. Housing became a lucrative thing… In the ward where Grenfell is, there are five tower blocks. We don’t have much social housing in the borough anymore.’

Failure of democracy

For many, the Grenfell fire happened as result of the government’s year on year attack on social housing, the amount of which being built has dropped for more than two decades.

The waves of deregulation since Thatcherism in the past thirty years are no doubt the context for poor and unsafe living conditions for social housing residents. In the spirit of ‘there is no such thing as society’, Thatcherism set out to destroy lives in working-class communities. In 1986, the Thatcher government scrapped the London Building Acts which stipulated fire safety rules in buildings.

Under David Cameron, the ‘one in, two out rule’ on regulations was a step further to cut ‘red tape’ and put profits before everything. Cameron wrote to ministers back then, that he wanted to be the first government in modern history to leave office having reduced the overall ‘burden’ of regulation. He wanted business no longer having to report minor accidents, to be freed from health and safety regulation, and for the Health and Safety Executive to begin the task of slashing half the regulations. In this way, building controls were much relaxed. It can’t be more evident whose interests deregulation has served.

‘Working class people in our local area are being neglected, because the council is represented by Oxford graduates, landlords whose children go to private schools, who never see poverty, so there’s no understanding… Councillors or leaders don’t understand or represent,’ said Mushtaq.

Mustafa Almansur, a campaigner whose family friend Rania Ibrahim died in the fire, organised the town hall protest in the first week of the tragedy. He said: ‘This is failure of democracy – those who’re in North Kensington may be reps of the community but they have no power… The council is dominated by those in south Kensington who have absolutely no understanding or relationship with the impoverished community.’

He adds that there is a conflict of interest when 142 MPs are landlords – it’s ‘not in their interest to legislate stringent fire safety regulations’. ‘This is democracy in crisis.’

Since 2015, Labour has put two pieces of legislation before parliament to improve housing safety for council housing and privately rented properties. While all social housing is expected to be fit for habitation, no existing law in Britain actually allows that standard to be enforced. Both of Labour’s proposed laws would have allowed council tenants to challenge local authorities on unsafe conditions.

In 2015, Labour MP for Westminster North, Karen Buck, put forward the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill, which was designed to ensure that tenancies on terms shorter than seven years are fit for habitation. It put the obligation for this on landlords, including when the landlords are local authorities, and also would have given tenants power to take landlords to court if there were major health and safety failings. This bill was voted out by Tory MPs.

Then again, in 2016, Labour MPs and peers took a second shot at rental regulation, this time attempting to amend the Tories’ Housing and Planning Bill (introduced in 2016, which doesn’t protect social housing tenants) and incorporating content from the previous rejected Bill. But the then-housing minister Brandon Lewis said that these changes would impose ‘unnecessary regulation’ on landlords. The Labour amendment was once again defeated. The 309 Tory MPs who turned up all voted against it.

Demanding justice

On Friday afternoon, two weeks after the fire, Mushtaq went to attend a funeral service in Westbourne Grove. It was for an old colleague and fellow Labour activist who perished in the tragedy. His name was Abdel Salam Sabah, and he came to Britain from Morocco in the 1970s. Many from the community came and gathered to pay respect and remember this well-loved man.

Thinking about the state of affairs and the future of the borough, Mushtaq sighed, saying: ‘It took thirty years to have the wealth gap increased to this level today. It will take a lot of effort to reduce the gap… Labour has come up with a strong socialist manifesto this year. I’m sure that no Labour leader will be able to come up with anything less in the next 30 years. So if they’re committed to it, they will be able to reduce the gap eventually.’

For now, the residents are still demanding basic justice, wary that the public inquiry could be another step in a cover-up. Justice4Grenfell campaigners are asking that the inquiry must enable a comprehensive investigation into the historical background leading up to the events that paved way for the tragic fire. As activist Ishmahil Blagrove said, issues of marginalisation of communities need to be addressed. The fire, its cause, and the immediate emergency response to it need to be investigated.

Justice4Grenfell campaigners also point to the aftermath of the fire, including the ongoing endeavours of the bereaved families and survivors to obtain the support and assistance they require, and the admitted failures in this regard on the part of the state, local and national. They demand that the investigation must leave no stone unturned: it must identify each and every individual and organisation who must bear responsibility and accountability for this tragedy.

These demands won’t be met if the public inquiry is headed by the government’s choice Sir Martin Moore-Bick, who, apart from the limited scope of his proposed inquiry, has a track record of facilitating social cleansing in London. Grenfell’s struggle continues.

A version of this article was also published by OpenDemocracy

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