Shopkeepers waiting for results of bazaar fire investigations

14-05-2024 11:08
Aftermath of the Erbil Qaysari bazaar fire captured by Peregraf on May 8, 2024.

Peregraf- Ammar Aziz

Six fires have damaged bazaars and commercial districts in the Kurdistan Region so far this year. There were five in Erbil and one in Duhok. In each case, the authorities promised quick investigations, but for the most part have remained silent about the causes. Rumors swirl in the absence of facts.

The most recent fire hit the historic bazaar of Erbil, the Qaysari bazaar, which contains about 4,000 shops. At least 227 shops, most of which belonged to clothes sellers, burned on May 5. Seven warehouses were also destroyed. More than 100 civilians and security forces were injured.

The Erbil provincial government formed a committee of inquiry into the incident. Governor Omed Khoshnaw said in a statement that officials want to determine the causes: was the fire an accident, caused by negligence, or was there a "malevolent hand" at play.

On April 8, a large fire hit Erbil’s Langa bazaar, which sells second-hand goods. It was the second fire there this year. At the time, Khoshnaw also questioned the cause of the fire and brought up the issue of surveillance footage, but left details to the inquiry.

According to media outlets affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), three people were arrested in connection with the fire, but the results of the committee’s inquiry have not been made public.

Aftermath of the Erbil’s Langa bazaar fire, April 8, 2024

Diler Swara, one of the victims of the Langa fire, owned thirteen shops with his six brothers. All of their premises were destroyed and he lost 30 million Iraqi dinars (approximately $20,000) worth of merchandise.

"My shop burned down twice this year. I am not saying it was deliberate or that there is a hand behind it, but it is questionable. A thorough investigation is needed," he told Peregraf.

Swara was not in the bazaar when the fire broke out, in which 73 shops total were destroyed.

"I don't know what caused the fire because I was not there, but all these fires in Erbil are not justified," he added.

There have been six major fires at bazaars and warehouses in the Kurdistan Region this year: Langa bazaar had fires on February 27 and April 8, a warehouse was set on fire in Erbil’s North Industrial Zone on March 9, a fire burned 160 shops and 20 warehouses in Duhok’s Cheley bazaar on April 1, several shops in the courtyard of Erbil’s Nishtiman bazaar burned on April 27, and the Qaysari bazaar suffered its fire on May 5.

Abdullah Raziki has sold blankets in the Cheley bazaar for the last nineteen years. During morning prayer on April 1, he received a call that his shop was on fire. He rushed to the scene. The fire initially appeared to be under control, but managed to break out and spread to the entire bazaar.

"My livelihood and income depended on that shop, which burned down and became charcoal. The goods in my shop were worth more than $200,000. All of it was burned," Raziki told Peregraf.

He said that the shopkeepers do not know what caused the fire. The local civil defense agency and provincial government have not yet made an official statement, leaving everyone wondering.

Local officials across the Kurdistan Region have launched an intensive campaign in bazaars and public places aimed at preventing fires and reducing damage if they occur. They are working with shopkeepers to raise awareness about how fires spread, reorganizing layouts, and removing flammable curtains and other potential hazards.

Firefighting teams bring the blaze under control at Cheley Bazaar in Duhok, April 1, 2024

Kafi Abdulqadir, an operations room officer in the Erbil Civil Defense Directorate, told Peregraf that most of the incidents were caused by electricity shortages or other types of defects.

However, she said they are still investigating the causes of the recent fires.

According to statistics previously published by Peregraf, more than 600 shops burned in the first four months of this year in Erbil and Duhok, causing millions of dollars in damage.

While electrical faults are a likely cause, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Ministry of Electricity has denied that there is any evidence showing that the fires are related to electricity.

Shopkeepers have responded with two demands: information and compensation.

"We have suffered a huge loss. We are demanding compensation," said Swara. "In the face of damage of about 30 million Iraqi dinars…we are repairing at our own expense. We have been promised compensation, but nothing has been done."

The government has not yet issued a decision about whether the shopkeepers will be compensated in cash. Though, in some cases, has offered alternative measures.

After the February fire at Langa bazaar, shopkeepers that had a contract with the Erbil municipality were given a rent exemption for one year and will not have to pay for garbage services for six months.

Ismail Mustafa, head of Duhok's central district, told Peregraf that a decision to compensate the victims has not yet been issued.

"I have held discussions with the governor, the civil defense forces, and the supervisors of the committees. They will all decide together," Mustafa said, without indicating when such a decision might come.

Moreover, there does not seem to be a timeline for the government to release the details of their investigations into the fires.

Bewar Abdulaziz, spokesperson for Duhok Civil Defense, told Peregraf that "the teams have started investigating the cause of the fire."

"There is no confirmed evidence that the Cheley bazaar was deliberately burned," he said, adding that they will comment more in the future.

For now, the shopkeepers are still waiting.

"Let them reveal the cause of the burning of the bazaar to allay suspicions," said Raziki.