Zameer Gul’s family came to Karachi many years ago from Batkhela, a town in Malakand district in northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. By the middle of the 1990s, he got married to Nageena, about nine years his junior. Her family had also migrated to Karachi from the same area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The two made their home – like every other migrant with no stable income – in a small rented house in Sohrab Goth, a Pakhtun-dominated area consisting of numerous slums and ill-planned apartment buildings on the north-eastern outskirts of Karachi.
Many former residents of their neighbourhood were at the time living in slums that had emerged in the 1980s beside hills in what is now known as Baldia Town — about 15 kilometres to the west of Sohrab Goth. Gul and Nageena also shifted there soon and started living in a rented house.
The neighbourhood they moved to is an informal settlement (or a katchi abadi in official parlance) and is called Gulshan-e-Ghazi. Its developers at the time had connived with the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) officials to encroach on the land that lay beyond the legal limits of the settlement. They were expanding it right inside the hilly tracts owned by KMC.
Land prices were low — about 15,000 rupees for a plot of 100 square yards. The developers did not provide civic amenities such as sewerage systems and sanitation, gas, electricity and land for educational institutions and healthcare facilities — a major reason why the money they asked for was not high.
This was incentive enough for Gul and Nageena to start thinking about a house of their own. After five years of living in a rented accommodation, they purchased a 100-square-yard plot and initially built just a single room. It was not plastered. Their home did not have a boundary wall either. An unskilled labourer, Gul did not have any money left for the plaster and the wall.
To secure money for turning their single-room shack into a proper residence, Nageena started teaching the Quran to local children for a fee. The couple also begged and borrowed from relatives and neighbours. It took them about 15 long years to add another room, a low boundary wall and a second-hand steel gate. They also managed to have their home painted this February — in bright colours.
Only a couple of months later, their dream of having a house of their own was shattered — literally. A boulder, precariously balanced right above their residence, moved early morning on April 6 and descended right onto the rooms where Nageena, her husband, their six children and a nephew were fast asleep. At the time, she still owed 20,000 rupees to her relatives and neighbours in unpaid loans taken for the construction of the home.
Those loans were not her first concern after she got out of the debris. Her entire family was trapped underneath and some of them were crying for help, says Ghulam Sarwar, a local welfare activist who reached the site of the accident only half an hour later.
Nageena first tried to remove the debris herself but the neighbours did not let her do that, says Sarwar. They shifted her to a house nearby. “She showed great patience throughout the rescue operation. No one saw her mourning or crying,” he adds.
The accident occurred at 4:15 am. By 8:30 am, Sarwar and five other locals had pulled out the whole family from the debris, using a spade and an iron bar. But they could rescue only three of Nageena’s children — all small girls. Her husband, 45, daughters – 18-year-old Kainat and 16-year-old Iqra – her son Abdullah, 11, and her seven-year-old nephew Atif had all died.
Ambulances were ready as soon as the injured were retrieved. They were immediately taken to the Civil Hospital. One of them, Nageena’s five-year-old daughter Yusra, is still undergoing treatment for a broken leg at a private clinic in North Nazimabad.
The boulder, about 25 feet in diameter, could have caused more damage if it had continued rolling onto other houses located in the same armpits of the hill where Nageena’s house was. Also, if it had crashed down a few hours later, it could have threatened the lives of more than 50 children who came to study the Quran from her during the day.
Nageena is now staying with her brother-in-law Muhammad Nisar who also lives in Gulshan-e-Ghazi, which has become a sprawling settlement of more than 25,000 people. Nisar’s son Atif, who also died in the accident, was visiting his aunt and cousins that night. “If I had forced him to come back home he would have been still alive but I believe everyone has to die when their time comes,” he says.
This sense of resignation has taken time to set in. “I fell unconscious when I found my son and others trapped under the huge boulder and its splinters,” Nisar says in an interview, more than two weeks after the accident. Some in the neighbourhood disclose that Nageena and her husband were aware of the threat that the boulder posed and they wanted to have it removed. But they did not have the 10,000 rupees required for the task.
There have been similar accidents in the past too.
Some 16 years earlier, a boulder rolled onto the house of one Abdul Hakeem, located in the same part of Gulshan-e-Ghazi. A large number of people were gathered at his house that day to mark the 40th day of his death. Four of them – his sister, mother-in-law and two sons – died on the spot.
About a decade ago, a rock rolled down a hill and killed two labourers, Zarak Khan and Gul Khan, in another part of Gulshan-e-Ghazi where they were loading sand onto a trolley. Several boulders are still lying in the area.
Officials at a KMC department that is responsible for looking after katchi abadis such as Gulshan-e-Ghazi say removing the boulders is not their duty because they are lying outside the legal boundaries of the settlement.
Najmuddin Sikandar, a former director of the land department at KMC, is not willing to let the officials off the hook so easily. They are responsible for failing to demarcate boundaries between the legal limits of katchi abadis and their nearby government lands, he says.
He also holds the KMC’s town planners – as well as those of the Karachi Development Authority – responsible for encroachment of hills. They have never bothered to offer affordable but planned housing facilities to the poor, he argues. It is due to the shortage of housing facilities that people are forced to purchase plots in dangerous areas, because it is the only land they can afford to buy, Sikandar says. “Nobody wants to live on those hills by choice.”
Nazeer Lakhani, director of KMC’s katchi abadis section, responds to the criticism by saying that his department does not have resources for demarcation. “We are not in a position to erect proper fencing on hills to avert rockslides,” he says. He also has a reason why his department does not turn the encroached land into planned real estate with no hazards: it will only provide incentive to land grabbers to encroach upon more hills, says Lakhani.
This article was originally published in the Herald's May 2017 issue with the headline "House under the hill". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a staffer at the Herald.