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Paranoia grips Grenfell over number of dead

Tributes left near to the Grenfell Tower fire in west London. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The flames might be out in Grenfell Tower but the pain is still searing – conspiracy theories have taken hold of the shell-shocked community

The people of Grenfell Tower say that the bodies of the victims have been recovered. Only body parts are left in the wreckage now.

But still they are baffled why the authorities have not officially confirmed this – and more importantly, what about the numbers? The numbers. It is a recurrent complaint that won’t go away. The numbers.

It’s taken an unthinkable tragedy to expose the excesses of our ‘not giving a fuck’ system.

How it’s possible to live in a country where people don’t figure as a number – even when they are dead?

The truth is, no one really knows exactly how many people were inside Grenfell Tower on the night. The residents think they can put a close approximation on it, but no one is asking them.

So instead, it’s an open secret – literally written on the subway walls. People are postering the underpasses beneath the Westway to vent their frustration.

‘How many people are gone – why won’t they tell us?’

‘Real numbers 79? No way.’

‘Who is doing the maths?’

An informal meeting held last week tried to find out ways of estimating the death toll

Green London Assembly Member Sian Berry, Labour MP David Lammy, singer Lily Allen, the Red Cross and local representatives, came up with the following ideas:

• Mobile phone company data, which was used during the riots to find numbers and identities?

• School records. GP lists?

• A head count of people in similar tower blocks?

Local Louise Downes, a family friend of 12-year-old missing person Jessica Urbano, is convinced the death toll is huge.

‘There was about 650 living there,’ Ms Downes estimates, ‘but then remember, it was Ramadan, so people had friends over, some had carers in there looking after them.

‘I reckon there is about 300, 400 dead at least.

‘I know unofficially it is at 150 because of witness seeing about 100 jump – and then the firemen seeing over 100 in the place.’

‘The police have pulled all the whole bodies out now. Now they are pulling out body parts.

‘We know the number is going to rise, to hundreds.’

A figure based on the photographs of the missing suggests the toll is much lower.

Many of those people are now confirmed to be dead. But many say there were just as many ‘unpeople’ killed – illegals who were living under the radar, in sub-let flats, up to twenty at a time.

A source working with residents, who does not wish to be named, told me he believed the numbers may be being suppressed.

‘If this is proved to be the case,’ he said, ‘then questions over insurance come up. If the building was over-capacity, then the insurance is a problem.

‘Questions are being asked about how to deal with undocumented people in emergencies. There will need to be policy changes…there is a whole raft of questions people don’t want to be asked.’

It is not surprising, that in the absence of information, speculation fills the space. Paranoia on the ground is rife.

It ranges from fears over their immigration status, to concerns about how victims are being manipulated by those with dark agendas

Whether the motives be political, financial or status-driven.

‘Families have gone into hiding because they fear the repercussions if they ask questions,’ a source tells me. ‘They cannot ask vital questions about their dead, as many of them were not meant to be here.

‘I believe people will be used as political collateral. That’s my fear.’

There are mutterings that factions are vying for position. Radical networks and far right groups may be there to hijack the people’s plight.

Victim’s whereabouts are the subject of speculation, and those in the know guard the information fiercely. This knowledge has itself become a source of collateral. The office politics of grief management.

People jostling trying to carve out a role.

Others over-claiming about the distribution of large sums of money. It’s hard to know who to trust, locals tell me.

Meanwhile, the majority of survivors are silent, leaving others to speak on their behalf.

Shaun Mendez is a charity worker for Solidarity Sports, a Kensington-based charity for disadvantaged children.

He has been helping the bereaved family of Nura Jamal, husband Hashim Kedir, and their children Yahya, 13, Firdaws, 12, and six-year-old Yaqub.

The children’s faces are familiar from the missing posters.

Firdaws and Yahya are the kids wearing the yellow climbing helmets – their holiday snaps when they were taken away on a trip by a charity.

A sad reminder of lost lives, poor kids who didn’t enjoy any of the usual luxuries most children take for granted.

‘We took the children on a holiday and that’s how I got to know the family. They come from Ethopia originally. At first, what we were trying to do was find the family.

‘So we put posters up, and appealed for information. But as the days have gone by, we are assuming they have died.’

But still there is that uncertainty.

‘It is important for family to have closure. We appreciate the job the firemen are doing, and that it is so so difficult to recognise the bodies.

‘There has been a lack of openness and honesty in terms of information getting to families.

‘Some people say the police are drip-feeding the information, that they do actually know the numbers. They know it is a lot more.’

Mendez says that psychological damage must be addressed in families such as the Kedirs.

‘Long term, there is a lot of emotional damage and it’s going to take a long time to heal.’

Last week, Labour’s Jess Phillips put a question to the communities minister Savid Javid about people with fragile immigration status and their potential fear of speaking out.

Javid said the government would consider granting indefinite leave to remain: ‘I think it’s very important that those people, those victims who feel they have some challenges with their immigration status, I think we can show them appropriate sensitivity and treat them more favourably.’

That is not a rock solid guarantee but it is something. Meanwhile, they have been left alone with their grief.

People sit by the Notting Hill Methodist church, the nearest gathering place in the shadow of the tower, keeping the flowers watered with to donated plastic bottles, which serve as vases.

I speak to a woman named Fatima about her friend Rambia Ibrihim, 30, who lived on the 23rd floor with her two children, Fethia Hassan, aged five and Hamia Hassan, aged three.

‘She wanted to come out with her children but they told her to stay. They should never have told her to stay. And I’m not fighting only for my friend I’m fighting for all the whole building. They are all my family they are all my people.’

She shows me a video of her friend, shouting for help from the window of the burning block: ‘Hello! Hello! Come, come.’ The whole family died.

‘People are scared. They are scared, you know, that they might go to prison. These things shouldn’t be happening.’ She shows me a picture of her friend and her children, taped-up on the church wall.

‘Beautiful children. Her husband he just arrived here from Egypt with another other little girl. He was away. She phoned him that night and said, ‘I’m in danger’.

‘He thought she was still alive – he looked in every hospital looking for her.’

Those who lost loved ones still don’t know for sure. Some are still clinging onto hope two weeks later.

My source, who is working with families trying to get them advice and support, tells me: ‘The grey area around the numbers could be easily cleared-up.

‘It’s deeply unfair to keep people in trauma, in the dark, over this. Many still haven’t been told if their loved ones are alive or dead.

‘This community knows how many people were in that building. Eye witnesses and anecdotal evidence suggested it to be much higher. This information is being held back and people are being subjected to prolonged trauma as a result.

‘There is a reason this number is being held back and a paper trail of conflicts of interests.

‘Unless a more accurate number is released soon, prolonged trauma becomes a big issue for those who have either had no help or have not had loved ones’ confirmed. It would also make those conflicts of interest look more suspect.’

Perhaps the right figure will never be known. It seems those who were unpeople in life remain so in death.

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