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'We Had Lost All Hope of Even Finding Her Body': Visiting the Scene of the Rana Plaza Disaster, Two Years Later

On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,138 workers in the garment factories there and injuring 2,000 more. VICE News visited the site on the two-year anniversary.
April 24, 2015, 6:12pm
Photo by Syed Tashfin Chowdhury

On Friday afternoon, Shahana Akhter, 39, was found wailing by the rubble of the Rana Plaza collapse site in Savar Upazila, in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka.The mother of five had come here a few hours earlier and sat reminiscing over what she can remember of her daughter Poly.

Poly was 17 when she died here two years ago. On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza building collapsed, killing at least 1,138 workers in the five garment factories housed there and injuring 2,000 more.

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"This is where my daughter Poly breathed her last," Akhter told VICE News. Although her eldest daughter Dalia also worked here, she did not go to work on that "fateful day."

There had been warnings that the building was structurally unsound before the disaster and workers had been evacuated after cracks had appeared the previous day. Akhter explained, however that "Poly still went, fearing that the factory authorities may deny salaries if she does not show up."

Poly's corpse was found eight days after the collapse. "Before that, we had lost all hope of even finding her body," sobbed her mother. Although the family was compensated around 100,000 Bangladeshi taka ($1,298), and 20,000 taka for Poly's funeral, that is all they have received.

Akhter continued: "She was one of the three bread-winners in the family. Dalia is now traumatized and fears tall buildings. Our family of six is surviving on the income of my husband who is a vegetable seller." Akhter is scared that the education of Dalia and Poly's three school-age sisters may be affected due to their financial hardship.

Most survivors and family members of those killed during the tragedy are facing similar hardships, according to a report into its aftermath by the Dhaka-based Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD).

Most survivors, struggling with injuries and disabilities, are jobless at the moment, due to the physical and mental problems they face.

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Photo by Syed Tashfin Chowdhury

Such is the case of Shafiqul Islam, 28, who was working as a quality checker at New Wave Style, on the seventh floor of Rana Plaza.

"Immediately after the collapse, I was pinned to the ground by a wall for hours before being rescued," Islam told VICE News. He was left with broken bones and a hideous scar on his right hand and both legs after the giant wall collapsed on top of him.

"I cannot walk properly now," he said. Since the disaster, Islam has tried his luck as a quality checker in at least three different garment factories. "After checking 20 to 30 pieces, the strain on my hands does not allow me to continue further. That is why I have been fired from all the jobs since," he explained.

Islam claims that the only compensation he has received is 50,000 taka for treatment costs. "I cannot even go to the doctors regularly as I do not have the money to pay for the consultation," he said.

Islam's family runs on his wife's income who also works at a garment factory in Savar. "Supporting the house rent, daily expenditure, and schooling of my seven-year-old son is becoming extremely difficult. I have become a burden to myself," he said.

There are other survivors who claim that they have received no compensation whatsoever. Anisur Rahman, who worked as a needleman on the fourth floor of the building, told VICE News: "I remember the rumbling and something falling on me. I woke up a day later in the intensive care unit of a nearby hospital."

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Showing medical records from at least three different hospitals along with a photo of himself while undergoing care, Rahman said: "I had sustained severe injuries to my skull and spine. My family spent nearly 450,000 taka for my treatment. I have not been paid any portion of the treatment costs or any other form of compensation."

Photo by Syed Tashfin Chowdhury

Rahman added: "Since the disaster, I cannot remember things for more than three days. I cannot walk or speak properly. My wife and my three-year-old son are surviving through our family savings. I do not know how we will survive after that is exhausted."

There are also families who say they have lost their loved ones but as their bodies are still missing, they too haven't received any compensation.

Mahera Begum, 52, mother of 20-year-old Babu Miah, still visits the Rana Plaza site looking for her son's remains. "I searched everywhere for him, but no one came to my help to find him or help me apply for compensation," she said.

Photo by Syed Tashfin Chowdhury

As her husband also passed away a year ago, Mahera is living through extremely difficult times with her eight-year-old son.

According to a new Human Rights Watch report, most survivors and the victims' families have not been properly compensated, as only $21 million of the $30 million needed had been paid or pledged by March 2014.

There has also been disappointment regarding the snail-paced progress in the probe against those responsible for the disaster. Since the disaster two years ago, at least 11 cases remain pending with Dhaka's labor court and two others are still under investigation.

Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, of the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, noted: "South Korea has ensured justice within one year of the ferry disaster. But we could not do it in two years."

Prior to the second anniversary of the industrial disaster, however, a number of different bodies, including the CPD, have commended significant progress toward ensuring workplace safety and workers rights by the apparel sector in Bangladesh.

On April 22, CPD reported that as of April, 2,703 apparel factories have been assessed for structural safety — 77 percent of the total of 3,500 factories. More than 4.2 million workers are employed in these factories, 80 percent of whom are women.

Yet this doesn't help the victims, survivors, and families involved in the tragedy at Rana Plaza in April 2013.