Bangladesh: As Farida knelt beside the linen-wrapped body and looked at the dress that she herself had purchased, her sobs of sorrow turned to tears of painful relief. She called her husband to speak the words she had been praying for during her week of searching: “I got her. I got her.”
Just moments before, she had stopped workers from placing the body in one of the dozens of unmarked graves dug for victims of Bangladesh’s building collapse whose bodies were too battered to identify. With wails and sheer persistence she had pushed through the crowd of onlookers and forced officials to give her one last look at the row of decaying bodies to see if one might be her beloved sister-in-law. One was.
“Oh, this is my Fahima! This is my Fahima!” she cried at officials. She pointed out the distinct spot on her sister-in-law’s forehead and the red salwar kameez outfit she had given her.
Farida, who uses only one name, said Fahima had narrowly escaped the worst fire in the history of the country’s garment industry last year. This disaster, she did not escape.
For Farida and countless other relatives of the garment workers who disappeared when Rana Plaza came crashing down, the past week has been one of tumbling expectations, as hope that their loved ones survived turned into fears they may have to return home without even a body to bury. Many are impoverished villagers who spent what little money they had to rush to a capital they had never seen, only to find that news was hard to come by and officials were often indifferent.
Without one central list to track the rescued and the dead, relatives waited outside the wreckage or crisscrossed the congested city to visit hospitals and makeshift morgues, armed with only photographs and prayers. Posters of the missing are plastered on walls and utility poles across the industrial suburb of Savar, where Rana Plaza had stood. The collage of faces provides a constant reminder of the scale of a disaster that has killed at least 450 people.
Jahid Sheik wakes up near dawn every day to continue the search for his 18-year-old daughter, Amena Khatun, who worked on the building’s second floor. He doesn’t stop until midnight. He said that since he arrived in Savar from the country’s southwest the day of the accident, he has checked every hospital where survivors were rumored to have been admitted and every place the dead were taken. It has been one disappointment after another.
“There has been no help from officials,” the 40-year-old said. “I am a poor man. I am illiterate. Who will help me?”
Along with a handful of other relatives of the missing, he attended Wednesday’s mass burial in Jurain searching for answers. When he left for the funeral he said a prayer to Allah that he would find Amena and he kept reciting the prayer in his head the entire way there.
He watched as flatbed trucks carried the bodies through this impoverished suburb, weaving through potholed lanes congested by rickshaws and spotted with beggars bickering for territory next to open sewers. He saw the dead arrive at the cemetery to the wail of an ambulance’s siren and the whistles of workers clearing the crowd. He watched as the bodies were unloaded and adults and children alike covered their noses against the overpowering stench of rotting flesh.
He watched as hundreds of men and boys wearing white skull caps lined up and recited a traditional Muslim prayer that asks for peace for the dead. Then the bodies were placed in their graves.
He did not see his daughter.
“Again, nothing,” he said.
He vowed to carry on, both comforted and saddened by his memories.
“I will remember to my death that way my daughter called me ‘Baba.’ I will never forget that sound. My daughter loved me so much,” he said.