Taiz City: Burst Into Flames [Archives:1999/28/Governance]

July 12 1999

In June of 1997, a series of fires broke out in a number of villages in Al-Saeed in Egypt in a very mysterious way. Reports of these fires were printed in the Egyptian Newspaper “Akhbar Al-Hawadeth” under a strange title: “The Jinni set fire to our villages in Al-Saeed.” The simple people in these villages, because they could not identify the origin of these sudden fires, thought these legendary beings to be the most likely cause of their woes. 
Here in Yemen, in May and June of 1999, a similar series of fires broke out in the lovely, friendly and yet unhappy city of Taiz. Of course, the origin of these fires was not the jinni as the Egyptian people of Al-Saeed thought, nor was it arson, for the people of Taiz have long been known for their timidity. The reason for this troubling phenomenon is the constant power failures, which have made light more of a curse than a joy. 
The first episode in this appalling sequence began last May in the Abu Osama library. The fire devoured everything in the library, turning many valuable books into ashes. Flames reached as high as the third floor, and destroyed every thing on that floor. The firemen arrived very late at the scene of the fire, which broke out because of an electrical short circuit. The strangest part is the electricians, who refused to do anything unless paid first. 
The fire that broke out in Abu-Osama’s book store started what appeared to be an endless string of fires. A few days later a house was destroyed by a fire, and another house, a small book store in Bab Mosa, and finally a grocery store in Al-Salakhana district quickly followed. In all these separate incidents, the origin of fire was the same: A short circuit brought about by the phenomenal power failures. 
The destruction and material damage caused by these fires is huge. The emotional damage is just as great. It is hard to imagine the emotional state of a person who wakes up and find that everything he owns has turned into ashes. It is a real catastrophe caused by the electricity. Another devastating effect of these power failures is the damages caused to the electrical appliances like TV sets, refrigerators, washing machines, etc. This happens amid chilly indifference from officials in the Taiz Electricity Department, who insist on inflicting two hours of power outages per day on the people. No one in this Department has the slightest idea of the daily confusion caused by electricity failures. It can not be related to lack of production capacity, for electricity runs ceaselessly during national occasions. It is as if the Electricity Department in Taiz is playing a sort of clumsy practical joke on the already troubled people of Taiz. The only one that can benefit from this system is the candle makers, who provide light when the electricity cannot. 
The fires taking place in the city of Taiz are serious crimes caused by the mismanagement, carelessness and apathy of the electricity officials in Taiz. The Yemen Times went to the scenes of these crimes and met with the owners of the burnt places. We first met with Mr. Mohammed Abdul-Ghafor Al-Nehari, the owner of Abu-Osama book-store. Mr. Al-Nehari said: 
” I live in the same building that houses my book-store. On the night of the sad event, I was sleeping in the third floor. The fire started with an electric short circuit in the book store on the ground floor, and soon spread all over the building. My neighbors told me about the fire, and someone called the police, fire and electricity departments for help. The fireman came, but the electricity people did not come until some time had passed. My neighbors and I pleaded with them to stop the electricity to our neighborhood so as to avoid more grievous problems, but they only said they can’t do anything without instructions from Sanaa. Of course, they were lying, and they only wanted to get paid. Terribly, they took advantage of the mess. Finally they disconnected the current, but too late. By then the fire had demolished everything, even my apartment on the third floor. I will say that the firemen did their best to control the fire, and they were helped by another fire crew from Ha’il Saeed Company.” 
Mr. Al-Nehari ended by saying “I hold the officials in the Taiz Electricity Department accountable for what happened to me, and will never forget nor forgive them for their carelessness and indifference.”Another victim, Mr. Mohammed Mussleh Al-Odaini, who was a respectable grocery owner until the fire, had a similar story, except that he put out the fire without the help of the firemen. They came too late, but refused to leave without being paid, so Al-Odaini had to pay them for something they never did. 
All reports affirm that the fire in Al-Nehari’s book store was caused by an electric short circuit. The reports stated that the short circuit took place because the wires in the neighborhood were exposed by a lack of proper maintenance. The book store had an opening over its door through which the fire caused by the short moved into the store. One man who saw the fire told us, “The firemen did a great job, they came immediately after they were informed. Rescue police and investigation officers also came. Only electricity workers failed to show up on time, and when they finally came they refused to cut off the power unless instructed from Sanaa.”The catastrophe will occur all over again unless there is an end to the carelessness and unconcern common in the Taiz electricity department. In many parts of town, one can see exposed electric wires and power transformers. In other places, transformers are overloaded and cannot run at full capacity. Wires have been carelessly connected and badly positioned. We tried to speak to officials from the Taiz Electricity Corporation, but were turned way several times. Mr. Haza Ahmed, the Distribution Officer, finally agreed to speak to us. He categorically denied that the fires could have occurred due to a short circuit. However, an electrician assured us that the fires were produced short circuits, which can be ignited by exposed electrical wires. Another electrician agreed, and said that he has been fighting against the problems for a long time. 
What has happened in the town of Taiz is a real stain on this city. The suffering of the victims is impossible to calculate. There are many who have lost their property, and others who have been seriously injured or disfigured. But it seems that this suffering will continue, as pleas are met with deaf ears. 
By: Imad Al-Saqqaf, 
Taiz Office, Yemen Times