The Malta Independent 12 July 2024, Friday
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My personal tragedy pushed me into politics – Janet Zahra Walker

Sabrina Zammit Sunday, 5 May 2024, 07:30 Last update: about 3 months ago

Back in 2019, Janet Zahra Walker and her family became one of the many victims of the construction sector. On 13 June 2019, a wall on the side of a block of apartments where she resided in Mimosa Street, Pieta, collapsed, leaving the family stranded and with no place to call their own for the following two years. The block of apartments was adjacent to a site where construction work was taking place.

Now, five years later, Zahra Walker says that her personal tragedy is what pushed her into politics. She will be contesting the local council elections to be held on 8 June, on the ADPD-The Green Party ticket.

Reflecting on that fateful day, Zahra Walker recounts waking up and driving her partner to work, then proceeding to dress casually to begin her usual household chores. She said that there was nothing particular about that summer day. However, nothing could have prepared her for the life-altering event that followed.

When she arrived back at the residence, she found her sister cooking pasta sauce for dinner after work, and her niece getting dressed for school. Zahra Walker was about to post some photos on her personal Facebook page and, as she pressed the “post” button, she heard the sound of rocks tumbling down. She also recounts how the building started to shake.

"It felt as though I had triggered a bomb," she told The Malta Independent on Sunday in an interview. She immediately knew something was seriously wrong. Her sister told her that she could see cracks forming in the walls. At the sight of this horrendous development, her maternal instinct kicked in, and she grabbed her niece, who at that time was only seven years old, and literally pushed her out of the house. She instructed her to run as fast as she could and not to look back.

Janet’s mother, who had mobility issues and was still living with them at that time, was also rushed out of the home.

The block of six apartments was occupied by a total of 17 residents, most of whom were not acquainted with each other. In those eventful moments, all were urging each other to evacuate the building urgently.

They distanced themselves from the building as much as they could, and the extent of the damage was easily visible. It was as if someone with a huge hand had punched a hole on the side of the building. It was yet to hit them that they were not going back anytime soon, but that it would take years.

After the police and the civil protection made their appearance, the area was taped off and the CPD personnel went inside to check that everyone had left the building safely. In the chaos of the moment, her sister had left the pasta sauce on the stove with the flame still going, which was later turned off by a fireman, followed by the main switch of every apartment.

"All I had on me was my phone and the bank card at the back of the case," she said.

Zahra Walker recounts how she was about to clean the house that morning and was not wearing decent clothes to be in public. Others left the building in pyjamas and without shoes. Given they had nothing to wear and had been prohibited from re-entering their home because of the danger, Zahra Walker said that they had to spend "money we didn’t have" on clothes they had no emotional will to buy.

At this point many individuals representing several authorities also started to make their appearance, trying to help. However she said that the representative from the then Building Regulations Office, which is now the Building and Construction Authority, had approached them and inquired if they had somewhere to spend the night.

After the collapse of the wall, the developer of the property next door had offered them a one-night stay in a hotel, however Janet, like all the other residents, barely closed an eye.

“I couldn’t sleep for a whole month,” she said. She had nobody to turn to, as most of the family members that she knew were older than her mother. However, she said that she found solace in the kindness of strangers who were constantly contacting her, not knowing from where they got her phone number. She is forever grateful to them.

The next day, it was decided that the developer would cover a month's rent for every family impacted by the incident. However, when they started comparing the prices of the accommodation with how much the developer was willing to pay, they quickly realised it was not enough.

The families collectively went to the insurance company covering the developer urging them to solve the accommodation issue; otherwise they were going to sleep in their offices.

"We went from being tranquil people to confronting the insurance company and telling them that we would sleep there if they didn't provide us with a housing solution. After that, they guaranteed us another four nights in a hotel," she said.

In all this chaos, Peppi Azzopardi had also invited them on Xarabank, Malta’s most watched programme at the time, and told them not to worry because the Housing Authority was going to assist them with accommodation. As it turned out, the Authority eventually provided them with an apartment equipped with the same number of facilities as their own property.

It took them two years before they could return to their property. The pan with the pasta sauce was still on the stove, full of crumbled mould. The apartment smelled so bad that Zahra Walker had to completely redo the whole kitchen and scrape the walls. She said that in terms of compensation, the sum she was given did not cover everything.

During the two-and-a-half years they spent in Rabat, the family became accustomed to a pleasant environment, and Zahra Walker has nothing but praise for the local council of that area. Hence, when they returned to their own locality, it was a shock as it was not as well-maintained as Rabat.

As to why she decided to become a candidate for the upcoming local elections representing ADPD in Pieta, Zahra Walker said that she chose the Green Party as it was the only one which kept mentioning the collapsed wall incident of her property.

"There wasn’t a speech in which she didn’t mention me by name," she said, with reference to ADPD leader Sandra Gauci.

When questioned about her suggestions, she emphasised that maintenance and the environment in the area require significant attention. Zahra Walker believes she has the ability to make positive changes in transforming Pieta.

Zahra Walker is of the opinion that the planning authority, building regulation authority, and occupational health and safety, should become one entity.

“When one applies for a permit, the permit should only be issued if no law is being violated, with the same authority ensuring that no law is violated during work through regular inspections.”

She said that the current number of 16 inspectors is insufficient to cater for all the work that needs to be done to ensure safety measures are in place. Moreover, when it comes to complaints, there should also be a one stop shop.

She said that the newly introduced system, where victims of construction violations are given the assistance of an architect and a lawyer free of charge, is a step in the right direction. She added that when there is an identified collapse risk, people in the residences nearby should also be evacuated immediately, with a guaranteed paid accommodation “until all risks are eliminated.”

Referring to the Jean Paul Sofia public inquiry’s recommendations, she said she thought that everything that was recommended was already in place. However, she said that if these recommendations are implemented, “I believe that there might be light at the end of the tunnel”.

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