Rana Plaza survivors: Alive and accursed

Sunday marks nine years of the tragedy and yet there is a lot to be done about the survivors

"My mother and daughter both forbade me to go to work that day. They were scared after learning about the cracks in the building. But I couldn’t avoid the desperate call by our supervisor and the payment of Tk1,200 as overtime.

"And, since then, I've been paying the price of not heeding my mother’s and daughter’s advice," said Nilufar Begum, 43, at the time an operator at New Wave Style Limited on the seventh floor of Rana Plaza.

"I'm living on borrowed time. My coworker Rabbi pushed me aside as a beam fell on his body, and while enduring pain, he said, 'Sister, I don't think I'll live. So I'm giving my life to you'. I survived but was buried under two corpses for nine hours before being rescued," she said.

Nilufar’s recollections echo hundreds of unheard voices of the Rana Plaza tragedy, survivors who are now living in misery being incapacitated by the disaster.

Sunday marks nine years of the tragedy, one of the deadliest industrial disasters in the history of Bangladesh, and yet there is a lot to be done about the survivors. But for a lot of them, being victims of this infamous tragedy has become a curse.

A tragedy larger than life

This correspondent talked to eight female workers ahead of the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse. All of them live in the adjacent areas of Rana Plaza in Savar. Four of them are self-employed, two are engaged as part-time or contractual workers in garment factories while two others are completely dependent on their family members.

Of the eight, only one woman had got support from her husband, while the other husbands abandoned the women at different times, mainly because of the physical challenges faced by the women.

Asma, 42, has a broken leg and earns a little money as a cigarette vendor in Savar’s New Market area. She has a 16-year-old son, who has fallen prey to bad company, as she could not manage to keep him at school. Her husband left them two years after the tragedy.

“My husband left me because I’m crippled. It's fine. But he left me with nothing. He could at least have taken care of our son.

"My son has been cleaning latrines at other people’s houses to feed himself. I have failed as a mother…my son doesn’t see eye to eye with me…he hates me, and abuses me. Had my organs been functional and had I had a stable job today, I wouldn’t have to see this now. Tell me how the government can bring my life back to me. We are alive but living like dead people,” she said.

File photo of collapsed Rana Plaza Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

‘I'm scared to mention my identity’

The spread of myth, misconception and misinformation in the aftermath of the tragedy is taking a toll on the survivors who are going through a dejected life.

"The assistance that we got from the government went completely on my treatment. People have a perception that the victims of Rana Plaza are billionaires. Wherever we go, if we ask for work or help, everyone will say that we're filthy rich. Even the public hospitals refuse to give us treatment," said Salma, 32, another victim of the tragedy.

She claimed that now when she goes somewhere to ask for work, she carefully hides the fact that she was a worker at Rana Plaza.

According to the latest Action Aid survey of 2022, nearly 56.5% of Rana Plaza victims are suffering from declining health conditions, with waist pain, headache, pain in hand and leg, and back pain being some of the major problems.

One of the organizations that assisted patients of the Rana Plaza tragedy for a long time in helping them do away with the scars of the incident was the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) of Savar.

Apart from treatment, selected victims of the tragedy were assisted with rehabilitation and livelihood integration through several programs till 2020.

Over 3,000 victims have received treatment from CRP over the course of seven years. However, now they have closed down their specific services and funds for the Rana Plaza victims, but they are allowed to take services as regular patients.

People who lost their lives at the Rana Plaza tragedy nine years ago Dhaka Tribune

Mosleh Uddin Howlader, the coordinator of the Community Rehabilitation Program of CRP, said: "We have done enough with all of our resources to help the victims. But still, there is an end to everything. We closed our project about Rana Plaza victims before Covid and now our attention is needed somewhere else."

He mentioned that those who survived got various forms of assistance from a lot of donors but the families of those who died have been left ailing.

"People come to us a lot of time asking for free treatment, saying their parents or spouses died in the tragedy and now they're left penniless. Other organizations and the government should do something about the direct relatives of the victims and their children," he added.

The government gave compensation money to the families of the dead workers up to Tk10 lakh each. However, that money was divided as a fixed deposit against multiple members of a family, so ultimately the amount was not very sufficient.

Amena, another victim, died while working at Phantom Apparels, on the third floor of Rana Plaza. A few months back, her 16-year-old son was caught in a road accident while coming to Dhaka from his hometown Dinajpur. The boy incurred injuries on his head and needed thirteen stitches.

A trust fund has been set up for the Rana Plaza victims for their treatment but it is inadequate for their families.

The Rana Plaza Survivors Association, an organization run by surviving victims, bore the cost of the procedure.

The president of the organization, Mahmudul Hasan Hridoy, said that the organization had helped with burying family members of the victims in different parts of the country.

“No non-governmental organization (NGO) or government was willing to assist those families. We manage this organization with aid from people who are willing to help us. It has been going on like this," he added.