Saeeda Khatoon details life of son who died in Baldia factory fire

By Our Corr

Saeeda’s resilience is a feat few can achieve. After losing her only son to the deadly blaze five years ago, she has dedicated her life to the fight for justice. PHOTO: ATHAR KHAN

Saeeda’s resilience is a feat few can achieve. After losing her only son to the deadly blaze five years ago, she has dedicated her life to the fight for justice. PHOTO: ATHAR KHANKARACHI: Aijaz Ahmed was Saeeda Khatoon’s only son. Her husband had passed away when Aijaz was only two years old. Since then, the two had lived together until the deadly Baldia factory fire in 2012 claimed the life of Aijaz, who was 18 years old at the time, along with 259 others.Forty-year-old Saeeda wipes the sweat on her forehead as she settles herself in a seat at the auditorium of Arts Council of Pakistan, Karachi. Moments ago, she had delivered a fiery speech, urging the female audience to understand their rights and learn to fight for them otherwise society will suppress them. She was addressing a convention of home-based workers on International Women’s Day.These activities have kept me going, she says. “Attending and organising rallies for human rights has brought me so far,” she says. “Otherwise what has happened was enough for me to die.”

Saeeda maintains her composure as she delves into the memories of her son. She does not face you while talking – instead stares obliviously at whatever is in front of her as her face transforms from serious to tearful. She then goes on to narrate what had happened.

Her only childHe was in the cutting department of the garment factory, says Saeeda as she starts talking about her deceased son. “Like every mother, he was very close to me,” she recalls. “Since his father had passed away when he was two, both of us had lived our lives depending upon each other.”Saeeda shares that she would always take care of what Aijaz liked to eat. “Before he would come back from the factory after his 12- to 14-hour shift, I prepared the best food I could for him,” she says.The 40-year-old woman does not remember now what she had cooked for her son on September 11, 2012 – the unfortunate day of the deadly blaze. “Whatever it was, it was left untouched,” she recalls. “It was 6:15pm when I came to know about the fire. I rushed to the site hoping with all my heart that Aijaz would have walked out of the fire up by now.”Sadly, her hopes were not to materialise. “I had hopes he would come out safely with minor injuries,” she recounts as tears roll down her cheeks. “Later, I was informed about his burnt body.”Saeeda has never cooked since. According to her, she mostly eats one meal during the entire day. Even though she keeps herself occupied with her activism and court hearings, returning home is yet another struggle she faces each day. “Upon returning home, I become terrified by the thoughts of the horrific incident,” she weeps. “When I look towards the kitchen, the voice of my son echoes in my ears, saying ‘Ammi khaanay mein job bhi banaya hai bus jaldi lay aein, bohot thak gaya hun [Mother, please bring whatever you have cooked, I’m very tired].”The struggle must go onSaeeda’s resilience is a feat few can achieve. After losing her only son to the deadly blaze five years ago, she has dedicated her life to the fight for justice. The horrific tragedy changed the lives of the families of all the 260 victims. Saeeda’s courage offers them a glimmer of hope.When asked about her activism, Saeeda says that it’s a long tale.“After this incident, the victims’ families had no idea what were they supposed to do,” she recalls. “But we kept on attending rallies and were invited by different NGOs.” It was then that the deputy general secretary of National Trade Union Federation (NTUF), Nasir Mansoor, advised her to form an association of the victims. “Then I started working on it.”Saeeda would visit every victim’s family and explain to them how they achieve justice by working together. “The families were earlier reluctant,” she says. “But we finally formed Ali Enterprises Factory Fire Affectees Association.”The harsh realities of life have changed Saeeda – she has transformed into a seasoned labour leader now. “They might have thought of me as just another suppressed woman,” she says. “But I had changed. The sacrifice of my son and the pain had translated into a new feeling and I don’t know what I should call it – it was a mixture of emotions and courage that turned me into an activist. I started uniting all the victims, organising rallies and protests with them.”Saeeda has visited Germany and Nepal for labour conferences. “I have nothing to achieve other than justice for the innocent people who were burnt alive,” she says. “Apart from this, I will spend the rest of my life encouraging women to make the right decisions and learn and fight for their rights.”Meanwhile, the 40-year-old woman has a number of achievements to her credit. She has emerged as a front line labour leader in the struggle for justice for Baldia factory fire victims. It was in her leadership that the victims forced the German clothing giant, KiK, partially accused of overlooking health and safety measures at the Ali Enterprises, to pay the due compensation. Saeeda, however, says that money was not the goal for her and other victims’ families. They are aiming to continue their struggle for betterment of workplaces safety so that no one else should suffer the same fate as their loved ones.“Five years ago, I had never thought I will be addressing women about their rights,” says Saeeda. “But this is what life is. You never know what turns it takes.”

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