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There Are Still Broken Bones Buried Under Bangladesh's Collapsed Sweatshop

A year after the disaster, the grim history of Rana Plaza has delayed redevelopment, and almost nothing has been added to the site. Curiously, almost nothing has been taken away, either.

by M Sophia Newman
Apr 24 2014, 2:00pm

Rescuers at Rana Plaza waiting in line to carry out the dead bodies retrieved from under the rubble. Photos by Atish Saha

One year ago today, a nine-story factory building named Rana Plaza in Savar, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1,116 workers and injuring many more. Some of their bodies are still in the back lot, waiting to be found.

Images of the wrecked building—layers of concrete pancaked from roof to street—made it perfectly clear how severe the collapse had been. A year later, the site looks a lot different from the one you see in those photos. It's now an empty gap in a dense commercial strip, a rare blank in one of the most crowded, swiftly developing nations on Earth. But like the World Trade Center site before it, the grim history of this place has temporarily delayed redevelopment. Besides an ugly hammer-and-sickle statue left there by some communists, nothing has been added.

Curiously, almost nothing has been taken away, either. A week after the collapse, heavy construction machinery moved in and started to shift the piles of broken concrete to an undeveloped lot a few yards away. The wreckage is still there, unsearched. It is known to contain body parts of workers who died in the collapse. The question is why they're still there and what this means for the families

At another historical atrocity, some 12 years and 7,000 miles away, the approach to human remains was very different. After the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, a hunt began with the excavation of Ground Zero. Eventually, the results of the search included bone fragments retrieved from locations as far away as the gravel roof of the Deutsche Bank Building. To date, the New York Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (NYOCME) has cataloged more than 21,000 human remains and matched two thirds to the 2,794 victims of 9/11.

Just as 9/11 initially overwhelmed the NYOCME, the Rana Plaza atrocity overwhelmed the Bangladesh National Forensic DNA Profiling Laboratory. In the seven years between January of 2006 and February of 2014, the Bangladeshi lab profiled just 222 homicide cases, or about 31 a year. Rana Plaza killed 1,116 people—basically three decades of homicides in a single day. The lab had nowhere near the kind of funding or equipment the NYOCME had. In fact, the lab in Bangladesh was unable to efficiently identify the deceased until the FBI donated some software.

However, in other ways the identification work is easier than 9/11's. The World Trade Center attacks were an “open manifest mass fatality” in a dense section of Manhattan, which meant the total number of victims was unknown. The force of explosions had also “vaporized” some bodies, and fires as hot as a cremation chamber burned for days. At Rana Plaza, there was one-third the amount of victims, and casualties were clearly limited to workers inside the building. The disaster crushed and burned some bodies, but it didn’t “vaporize” or cremate anyone. This means that identifying the remains of every person who lost his or her life in the Rana Plaza atrocity is theoretically possible.

Heavy machinery used during the cleanup operation.

In practice, identification has its limits. The process hinges on extracting DNA, chemically processing it, and comparing with samples from living family members. Software like CODIS quantifies matches and assists in certainty, but while DNA sometimes lasts a long time, extracting enough DNA for a conclusive match can become more difficult over time if the tissues are left exposed to harsh conditions. 

In the wreckage behind Rana Plaza, what's left of workers has been dumped into a kind of landfill of garments and concrete—not ideal conditions for preserving DNA. The people looking for body parts are not scientists or government personnel, but the bereaved families of the dead.

This neglect has led to another problem: there are more people waiting for bodies than there are actual bodies. By mid May, some 550 people had registered as family members with the DNA lab, which held samples from only 321 individuals. Now, a year after the collapse, 207 bodies have been identified. Over 100 bodies remain unidentified, but some 300 families are waiting for a lost loved one.

Mere absence was enough to constitute a death after 9/11, though some disappearances were highly ambiguous, and the identification of bone fragments was often purely to allow families some closure. In a gesture of sensitivity, the 9/11 memorial eventually even classified voice recordings of the deceased as “human remains.”

In Bangladesh, where people still gather at the old factory to weep for missing loved ones, no such respect exists. According to government policy, missing Rana Plaza workers must be identified by a DNA match before their families can receive compensation, even though there's basically only one possible answer for what happened to those workers.

This is partly because of misidentifications in the atrocity’s chaotic aftermath. Last April, hundreds of family members came to Savar. Amid their panicked searching and overwhelming grief, they identified the first recovered bodies through their phones, ID cards, or clothing. To relieve overcrowding, rescuers buried unidentified bodies in Jurain cemetery (many of whom have now been identified via DNA samples rescuers obtained). About 777 bodies were also hurriedly given to loved ones, sometimes in error. Meanwhile, criminals laid claim to a few cadavers and their 20,000 taka ($257) payouts, dumped the corpses, and escaped with the money.

The factory site shortly after the rescue operation closed

The fact that fraud of that kind happens here demonstrates something important about Bangladesh: the level of poverty is so crushing that some are willing to steal a stranger's corpse, just for the $257 payout. It’s crushing for the actual families of the dead, many of whom were destitute before losing a major breadwinner. The humanitarian function of DNA identification after 9/11 was to allow families emotional closure. In Bangladesh today, it would also enable families to eat.

Families now allege that the government is obscuring the true number of victims to push down compensation payouts, while a Bangladesh Garment Manufacturing and Exporters Association representative has told the press that families are “village people who are unclear about how they can properly trace [their living family members].”

The information that could end the debate is readily available; it’s in the rubble directly behind the old factory.

In the soccer-field-size lot, concrete chunks are piled high. Scattered throughout is a mélange of purchase orders, lunch boxes, and cheap garments. While scalps and other large bones are visible, there are likely plenty of smaller fragments hidden among the rubble. Family members may want these for identification purposes, but the larger bones are the only ones retrievable by untrained observers.

And there are many of these amateur archeologists. Scavengers earn a living sifting through the rubble to find salable scrap metal; sari-clad women hunt; children hammer concrete off reinforcing bars. Standing on a pile of rubble, scavenger Laila Begum thinks about coming across bones for a long while. “I’ve never seen [any],” she says.

But a local man named Khalil told me that he believes bones are there. And he’s right. This December, children collected more than 100 body parts and turned them in to Savar police. According to the police chief, it was the fifth time that month.

For now, there is no word on whether those remains will be tested.

Follow M. Sophia Newman on Twitter.

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