In the lengthening valley of death

Sitakunda should be the point where we take a stand and tell ourselves, tell the government, that enough is certainly enough

We have lost about 50 people (the casualties will likely rise) in the explosions at the BM Container Depot in Sitakunda. More than 400 are injured, fighting for life in our overstretched hospitals and clinics. 

Parents and siblings and spouses and children wait for the remains of their dear ones to be handed over to them. Even as they do so, many among them do not know, perhaps will never know, that the ones they are waiting for have been charred beyond recognition. 

That is our tragedy. Indeed, tragedy brought on by sudden, unnatural death has been part of our social narrative. How else do you explain the lives lost by nine firefighters, maybe more, who went down there to bring the blaze under control? 

And then comes the bigger, furious question: How did the owners of the depot keep concealed the crucial information from the firefighters that flammable materials were housed in the depot, that there was a terrible chance of their exploding?

And they did explode, leaving body parts scattered, faces incinerated, limbs turned into images of horror. 

Yes, we have all seen it before. Down the years we have witnessed, in quiet, rising indignation, the death of citizens in such terror-driven circumstances. 

We have had garment factories collapse and swiftly end the lives of poor workers struggling to put food on the table for their families. We have endlessly heard, and repeated over and over, the narratives of those who have died and those who have survived shuffling through the shadow of death in the belief that it was life they were living. 

The rivers have claimed, not just through their fury but also through the incompetence and insensitivity of vessel owners, the lives of hundreds upon hundreds of our people over the decades. 

On the roads, badly driven vehicles, with poorly trained drivers or their assistants at the wheels, have pushed people to a sorry and gory end. 

Men have been murdered by elements often hired to do the job. Women have been raped and then disposed of, through strangulation. 

We live in the valley of death. Students at the highest levels of education have thought nothing of pummeling one of their own to death for spurious political reasons. Seven men are murdered, their corpses weighed down by bricks and dumped in rivers. Young school students are abducted and killed and no matter how many doors their parents knock for justice to be done, nothing happens.

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But we are forgetting. Yes, something happens, after every sordid happening. 

Inquiry committees rapidly take shape, given a week or a few days to unearth the details behind such acts of brutality. And then something else happens, which is that nothing more happens. 

How many among us can honestly proclaim that we have had the chance of reading at least some of the reports prepared by these committees? It all is a reminder to all of us that the best way to put an unsavoury happening behind us is to form a committee around it. 

Then, we move on.

It is through this long, unending valley of death that we have walked for decades. All our worries, all our outrage around the Sitakunda deaths and destruction, will be there for a few days, and then life as usual will go on. A year on, we will remember the tragedy, offer prayers for the salvation of the souls of the dead, and wonder how the survivors and the families of the dead are doing. 

And then we will go back to our lives, to the insensitivity which has consistently underscored our ambitions about ourselves.

But none of that ought to have been. Sitakunda should be the point where we take a stand and tell ourselves, tell the government, that enough is certainly enough. 

The owners of the depot in question must answer, must be made to answer the many questions that have arisen. The explosions were a tragedy of the highest magnitude. But keeping the depot in the way it was kept, until the blasts, was more than a tragedy. It was a criminal act, magnified by the deliberate silence of the owners over the presence of hydrogen peroxide on the premises.

Nothing should be left to the vagaries of politics or bureaucracy. In a country where the powerful and the influential often pervert the course of justice, often stay beyond and above the law, it now becomes necessary to reverse the trend. 

It is imperative that the men guilty of this crime in Sitakunda, that elements which have regularly played truant with the law, have pushed the poor to disaster, have smuggled national resources out to foreign land, be brought into the net of justice.

The inquiry committees are fine, but they will have credibility when they do what citizens expect them to do -- and that is to bring every detail behind the Sitakunda tragedy into the public domain. Public hearings, possibly on live television and radio, ought to be the beginning of a new trend in handling post-disaster circumstances. 

For far too long, we as a nation have been kept away from the reality of seeing justice being meted out to the guilty. Few men and women of criminal intent have ever been made to pay the price for their acts.

The Sitakunda deaths should be an eye opener. Since 2007, and taking account of this new tragedy, 12 major fire incidents have taken place in the country. Add to that the explosions which have over a period rocked small business establishments cocooned in the old part of the nation’s capital. 

It all makes you wonder why so many fire incidents have had to take place and whether or not measures were strictly put in place to bring the guilty to heel. Of course, no businessman puts his factory to the torch. But when he evades the responsibility of ensuring the security of his establishment and of those who work there, it is crime he commits.

As the nation reels from the impact of the disaster in Sitakunda, it becomes important that the families of those who have perished in the explosions be compensated in a manner that leaves them, despite their sense of loss, somewhat satisfied. 

Those who died in the depot as also the firefighters who did not come back alive from their mission of trying to douse the flames need to be treated with respect and dignity. That respect and that dignity will rest on guarantees of financial security for their families, on assurances that their children will be privy to good education and employment.

Platitudes are what we do not need. The deaths and the injuries caused at the Sitakunda depot are one more instance of the shame we have periodically gone through, owing to the callousness of the greedy and the ineffectual performance of those in authority.

These are days of collective mourning in the life of this nation. What holds us back from lowering the flag in respect to those claimed by the fire and those who have perished in earlier times -- on the roads, on the rivers, at other industrial establishments? Why cannot we set a day aside for prayers to be offered for these fallen citizens at every mosque, temple, and church in the country?

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.