Blog: Qatar in Mourning – Trying to make sense of Doha’s recent Villaggio Mall fire tragedy

I was deeply affected by the Villaggio fire in Doha this week, more than I felt I would be, and perhaps more than I deserved to be, writes TheEDGE editor, Miles Masterson. I will explain that soon, but first – as the fire occurred as our magazine was about to be shipped off to the printers at the last minute – I was emotionally compelled to pen the following in my editor’s letter, deleting a bunch of meaningless (in this context at least) waffle about what was in the June issue:

“As we were about to go to press the news of the tragic fire at Villaggio Mall in Doha came in. From all at TheEDGE magazine and Firefly Communications, we offer our thoughts and prayers to the parents, friends and loved ones of those who lost their lives. What transpired that dark Monday in late May 2012 will be a black mark on the psyche of Qatar and all its residents for a long time to come.

Many questions have been asked about the ostensibly inadequate safety measures in place at this mall, one of the city’s busiest. Hopefully these questions will be answered in due course and those culpable are duly and severely punished and made an obvious public example of. I hope this incident will also stimulate every owner of every building and business in Doha to double check their safety measures and staff training and procedures, and that the relevant regulators and authorities to do the same and enforce the relevant laws, without exception.

Loss of life of this kind – of caring adults and wonderful, innocent children – due to any reason, be it negligence or scrimping on building or safety costs, has to be absolutely unacceptable and severely condemned and brutally punished. To do anything less or maintain a less than perfect safety standard is medieval and backward and possibly even the highest order of selfishness and greed and has no place in the modern society that Qatar is striving to become.

That must be the silver lining to this otherwise incredibly dark and painfully sad cloud.”

Limited by time and space that is all I could say, before we sent the magazine off to the printers. Now, having had a few more days to digest this terrible incident, my feelings haven’t changed. Shock. Despair. Sadness.

And like all in Doha, a growing sense of anger.

I say that I felt more than I believed I might because of one simple reason. I am a father of a blond, blue-eyed toddler, the absolute light of my life, who is the roughly same age as the dearly departed New Zealand triplets. My son had in fact been to the Gympanzee nursery once or twice, and is a regular face in Villaggio, where he goes almost every afternoon with his granny and his nanny – and his mother and I nearly every weekend.

We live one block from Villaggio. So this hit me and my wife very hard, like a sucker punch in the solar plexus hard. My wife mentioned that her friend told me that until you have kids of your own, you don’t understand this kind of emotional impact when something like this happens. Now I do.

But I also don’t feel worthy of any real pain because I can only imagine what the parents of those three little Kiwi “monkeys” as their mom apparently called them (and which we call our son, too), because my boy is still alive. So we went home and hugged him as hard as we could (all week), my pregnant wife cried and we prayed for those bereaved, our hearts and souls going out to all of those who lost children and loved ones in the blaze, which was still smoldering literally a stone’s throw from our villa.

In yet another blow to close to home, literally, those lost included two of my fellow South Africans, fellow Capetonians, the teacher at the nursery who we had also met, and the young boy, to whom we are actually connected through friends.

Which I think is what all of Doha has experienced and feels. Degrees of separation are slight here, this is a small family-centric city with focused groups of expat communities who all know each other or at least of each other.

This has no doubt touched every single one of us, local and expat alike.

That expat kids died in such numbers is also why it made world headlines. And that is why this incident is really a major test for Qatar. If being thrust into the world limelight with the announcement of the 2022 world cup was a high point in recent history for this tiny, wealthy and rapidly growing Gulf nation, I feel that this is its ultimate nadir. A rock bottom point from which there is only one way: up.

The question is: what is going to be done not only to get to the root of who is responsible here, but to ensure that the safety standards in the country – which are high on paper but ostensibly, and most notably according to some Qatari media outlets, poorly enforced – rigorously policed and adhered to? A lot, we hope.

We all know, or at least highly suspect, that there are businesses here that cut corners. In construction. In training. In health and safety. How pervasive this neglect of basic safety procedures is throughout the land one can only speculate, as there are without a doubt private firms and government institutions that do take this very seriously.

But, for those that do not, saving a few thousand Riyals on either materials, maintenance or the time and cost of proper emergency training and drills is just not worth it. You cannot replace or place a value on human lives, especially those as precious as little children.

There is also speculation that the rescue services were poorly co-ordinated and that the very least communication between the mall and the relevant authorities was lax. TheEDGE does not know all the facts and so cannot comment this or add to the speculation and rumours in Doha on what was the behind the fire at Villaggio, how dysfunctional their safety measures were or who is ultimately to blame here.

We can only hope that the truth about this incident comes out (and the way that the local population, from the top to the bottom is reacting, let alone foreign media and governments, one is hopeful that it will), and that those truly responsible are indeed held accountable.

And we can also only hope that the rest of Qatar takes heed and learns from the Villaggio Fire and something like this doesn’t ever happen here again.

Words and photo by Miles Masterson, Managing Editor, TheEDGE Magazine, Doha, Qatar

PS. For the most objective, unbiased and thorough coverage of this incident I have to commend the team at local citizen journalism blog Doha News for their stellar coverage of this incident.




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