KARACHI: At least 12 women and children were killed in a deadly stampede at a Ramadan food and cash distribution center in Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi on Friday, police and rescue officials said, as the country struggles with surging food prices.
The stampede happened when hundreds of women and children panicked and started pushing each other to collect food outside a factory in a well-known industrial area, known as SITE or Sindh Industrial and Trading Estate.
Business owners during Ramadan often hand out cash and food, especially to the poor.
As the stampede began, some women and children fell into an open drain, local police official Mughees Hashmi said. Residents said a wall also collapsed near the drain, injuring and killing people. The incident left the street that leads to the factory littered with wounded people and dead bodies.
Several people were also injured in the stampede. Hashmi said eight women and three children died.
A survivor, Baby Khursheed, 35, said she went to the factory to collect supplies with two of her elder sisters, Sabira Khatoon and Naseem Bano, who both died in the incident.
“There were hundreds of women in the street, the factory staff was allowing only a few of them at a time to collect rations,” she said. The street where people had gathered was narrow, she added.
A local administration official said 600 to 700 people were coralled in a small industrial compound.
“When they opened the main gate, all the people rushed in,” added 22-year-old Fatima Noor, whose sister died in the crush.
The bodies of six women and three children were brought to the Abbasi Shaheed state hospital, spokesman Muhammad Farraukh said.
An official for the Rescue NGO told AFP an additional two bodies were sent to another hospital, and police surgeon Summaiya Syed Tariq confirmed the total toll of 11 late Friday.
Asma Ahmed, 30, said her grandmother and niece were among the dead.
“We come every year to the factory for the Zakat,” she said, using the Islamic term for alms.
“They started beating the women with clubs and pushing them,” Ahmed added. “There was chaos everywhere.”
“Why did they call us if they couldn’t manage it?” she asked.
Watr pipe burst
Khursheed, who had bruises, said that as the crowd swelled, a water pipe burst. Cries for help went up and the factory staff tried to control the situation by opening a gate along the street, she said.
Murad Ali Shah, the top elected official in the Sindh, has ordered an investigation into the deadly stampede that resulted. He also asked charities and business owners to inform police before organizing such Ramadan handouts.
Shortly after the incident, police detained some of the factory’s employees for questioning.
It is the deadliest stampede at a food distribution point since the start of fasting during Ramadan.
Toll rises to 22
With the latest incident, the death toll from stampedes at free food centres across the country has risen to at least 22 since last week.
Hashmi said the factory owner who organised the food distribution centre had not alerted police about the plan. He said local police were unaware of the distribution, otherwise they might have deployed forces.
Local resident Mohammad Arsalan said he lives near the factory where people had gathered since the morning to collect the free food. He said he did not know what exactly caused the incident, but “we heard cries and later learned about this stampede.”
Friday’s incident comes a day after authorities ordered deployment of additional police at Ramadan food distribution centers to avoid dangerous overcrowding.
Cash-strapped Pakistan launched an initiative to distribute free flour among low-income families to ease the impact of record-breaking inflation and soaring poverty during the holy month. While Friday’s incident was not part of that government scheme, crowds have swelled at the distribution centres in recent days.
The free flour distribution initiative was launched by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif last week, although his coalition government is facing the country’s worst economic crisis amid a delay in getting a key $1.1 billion tranche of a $6 billion bailout package originally signed in 2019 with the International Monetary Fund.
On Friday, Pakistan’s Finance Minister Ishaq Dar said that a key tranche from the IMF loan will be released soon.
Sharif visited a wheat flour distribution centre in Islamabad on Friday and met women who had come to collect flour. The premier asked authorities to ensure that people are treated well and there are no further incidents.
There was no comment from the prime minister’s office on the deadly Karachi stampede. “That is a provincial subject,” a government official told The Associated Press. “CM Sindh can respond,” the official added, referring to the region’s chief minister.