A resolute woman wheeled her teenage son’s shrouded corpse outside the gates of Pakistan’s Karachi city press club on Feb. 28. As she sat herself on the ground next to her son’s body, hot tears that she had been suppressing streamed down her face. Her sobs quickly turned into anguished wails.
“They doused my children in petrol and set them on fire. Why are they doing this to the poor? Give me justice,” the woman, Safiya Bibi, told local media.
The day before, Bibi had stepped out for an errand when some nearby residents alerted her that her tent was on fire. When Bibi returned, she found a raging fire consuming her shelter and her two children covered in third degree burns. Bibi’s eight-year-old son had died on the spot while her 17-year-old son died at a local hospital while receiving treatment.
Rendered destitute and homeless after the death of her husband, the widowed mother of two had been squatting with her children in a tent of patched-up rags, mud, grass and sticks for two years on a vacant lot on public land. A month earlier, she had started receiving threats from five men who lived in houses nearby. They had been pressuring Bibi and her children to vacate the premises.
“They had been demanding her to leave but she had nowhere to go. The place that they had been living in was barely even being held together as it was,” Bibi’s lawyer Fazalur Khalid told VICE World News.
Bibi roamed the streets begging while her two children sold water bottles at a neighborhood bus station. “They were her main source of income. She is a beggar and is now starving,” said Khalid.
Bibi filed a police complaint for arson and murder against the men on Feb. 28. A police investigation into the case is currently underway.
“We have conducted raids at the accused suspects’ houses, however they are currently on the run,” police sub-inspector Abdul Majeed told VICE World News.
Safiya Bibi with her teenage son's corpse outside Karachi's press club in Pakistan. Photo: Ali Raza
Like Bibi, more than 60 percent of Karachi city’s population of over 20 million live in informal housing settlements in slum areas. According to data from the Urban Resource Centre, thousands of Karachi’s informal homes have been destroyed in fires in the last 25 years. Dozens of people including children have died in those fires. In some cases, arson has been reported as an attempt to claim land or resources.
Arson attacks on homeless populations are a worsening global problem. In Los Angeles, where fires associated with homeless camps are on the rise, a third of the 15,610 fires related to homelessness between 2018 and the first three months of 2021 were classified as arson.
According to global estimates, around 150 million people around the world are currently experiencing homelessness. A 2020 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development showed that approximately 171,575 people – or 55,739 family households – were identified as homeless. It also found that 16,667 people comprising homeless families were living on the street, in a car, or in another place not meant for human habitation.
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