Living with dread
As time has passed, debris of the Churihatta inferno has vanished from the narrow lanes of Chawkbazar. It is now mid-February and local businesses are busy maintaining their ledgers and stocks of goods – a common scene in Old Dhaka.
Betel leaf vendor Alamgir is working in his 3ft by 7ft stall. He pays his utmost attention to his customers – rarely to strangers. We began talking to him to find out if he had been there the night of the fire.
Alamgir looked straight at us, "It was 10:30pm. My son left for home, and there was an explosion. I was cornered inside my stall as the fire had engulfed the entire area. I survived, but my son died."
While we spoke with him, his dry eyes did not blink – nor did his voice tremble – as he recounted how he lost his 18-year-old son Parvez.
A year ago – on February 20 – a huge explosion suddenly ripped through Churihatta Intersection, causing a massive inferno that engulfed three surrounding multi-storey buildings. The tragic incident left 67 people dead on the spot and injured more than 20. Over the next 11 days, four more victims succumbed to their burns.
Initially, after the news of the inferno spread, people mistakenly assumed that a cylinder blast in Rajmahal Hotel and Restaurant had caused the fire. Footage from Rajmahal's closed-circuit camera later helped reveal that the fire broke out at the adjacent five-storey Hazi Wahed Mansion.
A chemical engineering team of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology examined the site of the incident and declared that the fire had resulted from a chemical vapour explosion.
The team also found proof that the fire originated on the first floor of the mansion – where hundreds of flammable substances were stockpiled for wholesale.
The fire gutted residential apartments – along with the warehouses on the upper floors and shops on the ground floor. Almost all the utility services were cut and all dwellers of Churihatta left the area.
Alamgir's sole source of income was partially damaged during the night-long inferno.
Although he took a break from his business for a month, he returned to it because he had to support his family. Alamgir resumed his business at the same stall where his son Parvez used to work.
"Parvez was a regular Rajmahal Hotel and Restaurant customer," recalled Mohammad Raquib, manager of the food shop.
Raquib witnessed people being charred in the fire while he assisted the firefighters in dousing it.
The following day, he left for his village home in Cumilla, but a month later, Raquib resumed his managerial job at the same desk.
He sits in close proximity to three stoves and five-to-seven gas cylinders.
"I am still afraid of the simplest of loud noises. The locals panic at the sound of firecrackers or a tyre puncture," said a traumatised Raquib.
The 20-year-old restaurant manager is still haunted by the horror of the incident, and the state of younger witnesses is no better.
Nasrin Akhter – a mother of three and a tenant of an apartment in the neighbourhood – feels the trauma of her 20-month old son Nabil.
"My son is always frightened and cries at the sight of fire," said the worried mother.
Life goes on
Hazi Wahed Mansion, which was sealed, still has a lock on its gate. Burn marks scar the building. Two other affected buildings – one adjacent and another in front of it – still bear burned patches.
Ignoring the damage, some of the buildings' tenants have returned to normal life. How long can an overpopulated part of Dhaka remain deserted?
From the outside, the mansion looks abandoned. At least ten shops on the building's ground floor were gutted and two shop owners died in the fire. Some affected shop owners later tried to restart their businesses, after the house owner renovated the shops. However, they could not do so because of restrictions on the commercial use of the building.
Abdul Quader, a plastic beads trader, is among those affected. He shifted his office twice in the last 11 months. His changed address attracted few buyers. Despite the restriction, he returned to Wahed Mansion at the beginning of February this year.
"As a tenant, I paid the building owner Tk2.5 lakh in advance. I want the money back. Hence, I am occupying possession again so that I can claim the money," said Quader.
Before the fire, fresh vegetable and fruit seller Monir Hossen used to sit in front of Churihatta mosque. After the incident, he found a destroyed tailor shop on the ground floor of another affected building and reopened his business there.
"The shop had displays of colourful dresses. The workers sat with sewing machines inside. The fire destroyed everything and left the space unutilised. So I have been using this space for the last nine months," said Monir.
In front of the haunted backdrop of damaged walls and black spots, Monir's displays of seasonal fruits and green vegetables symbolise the rejuvenation of Churihatta.
Nasrin's husband was not present when the fire broke out. She risked her life to save her three children and crossed through the adjacent rooftops – taking her children with her. After two days, she returned to her place, despite police restrictions.
What made her return to a haunted place when she could easily have moved somewhere else? Nasrin explained, "I came here after my marriage and have been living here for 13 years, since my first son was born. I have grown an attachment to this place. Can you give me a guarantee that the place I live in after this will not have incidents like this? It was an accident and that can happen anywhere in the world."
Nasrin is fortunate that her rented house was not burnt in the fire – but other buildings were burned. The blaze turned a cheerful place into a death zone. Buildings that had sheltered lives were abandoned overnight.
But life always finds its way, like it did in the lanes linking to the affected area.
Raquib and 25 others, all bachelors, had been living in a mess on the fourth floor of 65/66 holding – one of the affected buildings. When the building caught fire, the first to fifth floors were partially damaged. The frightened dwellers left their residence.
During a recent visit, some residents of the mess – all teenagers and staff of Rajmahal and other restaurants – were found playing carom on the fourth floor. Those who had night duties were taking a nap. The current members have replaced those who had left both their jobs and the residences after the fire.
By now, some tenants have managed to find accommodation in the building's renovated apartments. We found a warehouse of Minhaz Toys – a water gun manufacturer – on the third floor and sellers of plastic beads and polyethylene resins on the ground floor. There were two residential apartments in the building. None of the dwellers were interest in talking to journalists.