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'Why I set myself on fire at Belfast City Hall' - man at centre of horrific street protest breaks his silence

Exclusive by Lyra McKee

Published 17/08/2015

Footage of Faycal Daoud trying to set himself on fire outside Belfast City Hall last year in protest against his treatment
Footage of Faycal Daoud trying to set himself on fire outside Belfast City Hall last year in protest against his treatment
Footage of Faycal Daoud trying to set himself on fire outside Belfast City Hall last year in protest against his treatment
Footage of Faycal Daoud trying to set himself on fire outside Belfast City Hall last year in protest against his treatment
Algerian Faycal Daoud

A man seen by thousands of people on a video trying to set himself alight has come forward to explain why he made his horrific gesture.

Algerian refugee Faycal Daoud (35) took the desperate step after being left homeless, broke, hungry and unable to work to support himself.

He says none of the agencies set up to aid asylum seekers was doing anything for him and in despair he decided to set himself alight in the grounds of Belfast City Hall 14 months ago to draw attention to his plight.

A group of teenagers filmed Daoud trying to set himself on fire as they intervened to save him from serious injury.

Fourteen months on, he tells Lyra McKee why he did it...

Grainy video footage shot on a mobile phone of a man trying to set himself on fire in Belfast was uploaded to YouTube and shocked all those who viewed it.

The person filming appeared to be one of a gaggle of teens congregated at Belfast City Hall on April 30 last year.

In the video, they can be heard jeering at a dark-skinned man with an curly hair as he douses a rag in some flammable fluid and sets it alight.

"Is that all you're burnin'?" one of them shouts. Another bursts into song: "This girl is on fire."

Within a few minutes, however, one of the crowd realises that something is not right.

As her friends tease the man, she can be heard telling one of them, "No, I can't, I can't do this, see if he's gonna..."

They continue to taunt him. When he shouts, "F**k the system", they shout it back at him.

Then the shouts turn to panic as they realise the man intends to set himself on fire. Soon after, the video went viral.

In it, a teenager later identified as Paul Russell can be seen grabbing the man and pulling him away from the flames.

The man who tried to set himself alight never spoke to the media about why he tried to do it - until now.

Thirty-five-year-old Faycal Daoud, from Algeria, is homeless. When we meet, he is carrying all his possessions, including his identification papers, in a rucksack.

Since being evicted from his apartment because he could not afford to pay the rent as a destitute refugee, he is entitled to minimal or no benefits and is not allowed to work. He has been sleeping in a friend's office, waking up around 5am to leave before employees or the boss arrives.

The incident at Belfast City Hall was, he says, both a protest and an act of frustration.

He fled Algeria in 2008, driven away by poverty and a government that harassed and jailed journalists and critics.

By his late 20s he had already been imprisoned twice, once on conspiracy charges and the second time for assaulting a policeman, which he vehemently denies doing.

Seeing no future in Algeria, he sought asylum in the UK, with a brief spell living in Dublin before returning to the UK.

Refugees can wait for years before being granted the right to stay, as Daoud did.

His application for asylum and subsequent appeal have both been rejected by the Home Office. While he can appeal the decision again, he is currently surviving on the charity of friends.

His friend Josephine Devlin, a Belfast-based community worker, said: "Making them [refugees] destitute is basically a way of starving them out before they can make another appeal."

Retired human rights lawyer Padraigin Drinan has also expressed concern about Daoud's case.

Before the incident at City Hall, Daoud was living in a damp-ridden, third-floor flat - conditions he says his doctors argued were inappropriate given his epilepsy and asthma.

Yet constant complaints to the relevant bodies were ignored.

"I found myself in a circle," he adds. "I discovered that nobody cares."

Suffering from depression and feeling isolated, he turned to a number of organisations for help, but just one of them provided him with assistance.

"If the organisations for refugees and asylum seekers won't look after them, who will look after me?" he asks.

"[Other than the one organisation], the only ones who cared were my neurologist, my GPs, the epilepsy nurse - they did their best."

In April 2014, after what he felt was yet another fruitless meeting with a charity, Daoud decided he had had enough.

He said he walked to City Hall with the intention of setting himself on fire.

"Around 6.30pm, it all came to a head," he says. "I wasn't suicidal, but I was angry and suffering from depression. I just wanted to object [to what was happening to him]. It was an act of frustration.

"Between living in the UK and Ireland, I've suffered too much. I've been beaten, I've been threatened. I'm a human being." Asked what was going through his head at the time, he says: "This is the right time, this is the right moment, this is the right place to show that you are frustrated."

The media, he claims, did not want to know his side of the story.

"They didn't make more effort to know the reason," he says. "Before any act, there is a reason, so we should let the other person give his version and not just take one version of the story."

He says refugees are suffering and desperate, and that no one is listening to them. After an Algerian politician called for his brother, a journalist, to be executed for blasphemy over a book he wrote, Daoud is too terrified to return to his native country.

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