Georgia State professor Grace O watched helplessly as smoke billowed from the Qatar shopping mall, knowing her 2-1/2-year-old daughter, Zeinah, was trapped at a nursery inside.
The little girl with the easy smile was one of 19 people – 13 of them children – killed in the Villagio mall fire. Now, a little more than one year later, O and her husband, Zaier Aouani, say that feeling of helplessness persists as authorities in the oil-rich country have reneged on their promise to share findings from a government report into the deadly blaze.
That report wasn’t submitted as evidence in the trial of the owners of the nursery, four mall managers and an inspector from Qatar’s Ministry of Business and Trade, who are all charged with negligence and failing to adhere to safety regulations.
“Everyone says it’s a trial for show,” O said.
A verdict is expected Thursday, but Aouani, a professor at GSU who was teaching at Qatar University at the time of the fire, is pessimistic justice will be served.
“I’m not confident,” Aouani told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday. “The entire system has failed us.”
Parents of the other children enrolled in the Gympanzee nursery that day have voiced similar complaints about the lack of information from Qatar officials.
“It’s been a deafening silence,” Martin Weekes, father of triplets killed in the fire, recently told a New Zealand television station. “We don’t know what the situation is. We don’t know what happened. We don’t know if any improvements have been made.”
Critics charge the image-conscious government is trying to cover up the findings as it prepares to host soccer’s World Cup in 2022.
The committee investigating the mall fire found a “lack of adherence to required laws, systems, and measure by all concerned parties to different degree(s). This includes adherence to design, license, and safety conditions, which contributed to (the) Villagio catastrophe,” according to a report from Al Jazeera.
A short circuit in a fluorescent tube light in the upstairs storeroom of a Nike shop ignited the blaze, according to news accounts. One civil defense officer told Al Jazeera that the highly toxic paint used in the mall caused the fire and smoke to spread uncontrollably.
Zeinah and the other children enrolled in the nursery never had a chance. They were killed by the noxious smoke.
O and Aounai said Zeinah’s death could’ve easily been prevented.
Firefighters were slow to respond, according to witnesses, arriving almost an hour after witnesses first spotted smoke rising from the mall. O said she never observed any sense of urgency.
“I even told one firefighter, ‘I can give you money,’” she said. “Please go check the nursery. They just looked at me like a crazy person who doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Their search for justice is driven by the memory of Zeinah. They’ve hired lawyers, reached out to the State Department and enlisted U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s office for help, but so far their questions remain unanswered.
“We’re not going to stop until we get that report,” O said.
“Our daughter did not deserve to die,” added Aouani. “She deserves justice.”