Rana Plaza: A Last Gesture Recorded

May 6, 2013

On April 24, an eight-story building in a suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed, killing hundreds of factory workers. Examining a photograph of a boy buried in the rubble, Bangladeshi writer Shameema Binte Rahman asks how his last gesture will be remembered.

A victim’s body lies amid rubble at the site of a building collapse in Savar, Bangladesh, on April 25, 2013. Photo by A.M. Ahad, AP.

A photograph. The whole body is buried under debris. Only one part is sticking out: an ID card with its string wrapped around the wrist and the fingers. The face shows that he couldn’t have been more than 18. Just a youth. The ID card is wrapped around his fingers in such a way that even if his body and facial features were obliterated his loved ones would be able to identify him.

The boy is one of approximately 650 workers killed in a garment factory at Rana Plaza in Savar, a suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The building owner, his father, four factory bosses and two engineers have been arrested.

A coded message [is being sent] to the brain of each worker: “You may become an unclaimed dead body at any moment.”

Gazing at the young worker’s last recorded gesture, I will say that this is the natural instinct of a person about to be gobbled up by the overwhelming horror of becoming nonexistent, in the socioeconomic context of global capitalism. But the number of turns with which that youth of the photograph has wrapped the identity card around his fingers—isn’t that a reflection of his immediate reality? A portrait of the progressive process through which his existence was turned into nonexistence.

The spate of horrific mishaps, from conflagrations to cracks in the walls, occurring within the garment sector is sending a coded message to the brain of each worker: “You may become an unclaimed dead body at any moment. A car from one of the charity organizations may swiftly take you to an unmarked grave. And your family and loved ones may have to spend the rest of their lives carrying the pain of waiting and wailing for you.”

How close to death was he when his consciousness sent him the message that he needed to wrap his identity card so tightly around his fingers? Here, in Dhaka and in Bangladesh, it is very easy for living people, even those with permanent addresses and identities, to become unclaimed dead bodies through terrifying garment factory fires.

Thus far, around 650 people have been found dead, with nearly 100 bodies not yet identified. 32 bodies have been buried in unmarked graves, while another 65 are being kept in hospital morgues. Where do they belong? It was only last November that, in another factory disaster, the authorities weren’t able to identify 52 dead bodies found among the smoldering ruins of the burned-down Tazreen Garments.

It was during the military-backed caretaker government when the database called the National ID Card, or also the voter ID card, was first introduced with great fanfare; it was even supposed to be updated regularly. But has this system been used to identify any of the unidentified bodies or help locate any missing persons? No. Conversely, in places like Nepal and India, these kinds of databases are being used effectively to locate the missing.

Does the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) have a list of all the workers’ names and contact details? It seems unlikely. Can the owners of the factories whose workers died in the rubble, or are still fighting for their lives, provide a list with their employees’ names? Despite living in an era of unprecedented access to information, factual details about the workers and laborers employed in the highest foreign-currency earning sector in the country is in shambles.

How widespread corruption must be for us to witness such brutality without recourse to justice.

Why is it like this? Because the workers are poor. They are the subalterns. They don’t carry weapons. They don’t have the opportunity to commit corruption. They vote because they believe it is their civic duty. They believe in their politicians. However old they may be they are always referred to as “our junior.” And the factory owners have the capacity to force all of the workers—from 25 to 75 years old—into death traps like Rana Plaza by threatening to beat them with sticks.

How widespread corruption must be in every sector, from the center to the peripheries, for us to witness such brutality without recourse to justice. From the construction firm to the suppliers of the bricks, rods, cement and sand—all are complicit. This is a joint “production,” a murderous accident-cum-narrative resulting from corruption in every sector. Political and economic, both types of corruption have contributed here via institutionalized and non-institutionalized channels.

The still photographs flooding the news—a woman lying facedown on sand and pulverized brick, whose arm has been run through by a metal rod; a foot, braceleted, sticking out from a body buried under the rubble; a man fallen onto a woman; just a hand; a foot wearing a formal shoe sticking out of formal trousers; a lonely identity card hanging; that youth who, with his ID card wrapped around his fingers—all seem to say even in death, “We won’t let you forget us.”

While I was seeing all this I was reminded of “The Monument,” a poem by Alauddin Al-Azad about the destruction of memorials to the martyrs, or the short film Chaka (dir. Morshedul Islam, 1993), about an unidentified dead body. But when the reality is so much more brutal, and the struggle to survive so much more poignantly tragic, those depictions simply become sophisticated performances.

One hundred twelve people died in the Tazreen Fashions factory last November because of a lack of emergency equipment. That body-numbing horror is only surpassed in the disaster at Rana Plaza. It is likely that this shortage of equipment will take on even more frightening proportions in the future. The adjective “deadliest” will have to be added, yet again.

Translated from the Bengali original in BdNews24.com for AlalODulal.org by Tibra Ali

Update: One year after the Rana Plaza disaster, more than 1,100 workers have been found dead–and 140 remain unaccounted for.