Bittersweet end for missing in Bangladesh collapse

May 2, 2013 - 10:35 PM
Bangladesh The Lost and Found

In this photograph taken on Wednesday, May 1, 2013, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Farida, left, shows a picture of her sister-in-law Fahima to officials as she tries to identify her among the bodies which arrived for burial. Just moments before Fahima was to be placed in one of the dozens of unmarked graves dug for victims of Bangladesh's building collapse, Farida was able to claim and leave with her sister-in-law's body. 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 faded into the realization that they may have to return home without even a body to bury. (AP Photo/Ismail Ferdous)

JURAIN, Bangladesh (AP) — 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.

Police report that 149 people are still missing from the April 24 disaster, but others cite numbers much higher. More than 3,100 people worked at Rana Plaza and its five garment factories, but no one knows how many were inside at the time of its collapse. Authorities have dismissed rumors that they are hiding bodies to keep down the already staggering toll.

Traditionally, when a person dies in Bangladesh the body is kept at home for relatives and friends to honor. In a Muslim family, clerics come and recite from the Quran and incense is burned. A funeral prayer is held, a relative asks for forgiveness on behalf of the deceased and the body is buried, preferably the same day the person died.

The dead at Jurain were deprived of most of these honors.

Charity worker Mohd Rezaul Karim and his group Hope '87 have helped some family members in their search for the missing, providing them with shelter, food and transportation, printing posters and enlarging photos. If a search is successful, his group helps return the deceased to their home village for proper burial.

"They don't know where to go or what to do," he said, noting that many had been sleeping on the streets. He said the official response in the search efforts had been disorganized at best.

Hours after the crowds and politicians at the funeral had gone home and the graves had been filled, Karim sat with Farida and the body, waiting for officials to confirm it was indeed her sister-in-law.

Two years ago, Fahima, then 16, left the family's coastal village near the Bay of Bengal in search of work and pride.

"She was a fighter. She did not want to be a burden for the family, for the brothers," Farida recalled. "She used to tell me, 'How long will my brothers feed you all by working as day laborers? You depend on them. I don't want that for myself; I want to live on my own. I will get married with my own money, not with the money from my brothers.'"

Like so many girls from poor families, she started working long hours in garment factories, sending home what money she could to help her aging parents.

Farida said Fahima worked at the Tazreen garment factory last year, but quit over a pay dispute. Three days later, the factory was destroyed in a fire that killed 112 workers. More than 50 of those victims, burned beyond recognition, are buried in graves marked only by numbers in the same cemetery where Fahima would have been laid to rest had Farida not intervened.

After narrowly missing the fire, Fahima returned to her village to visit her worried family.

"I talked to her and asked her to come home for a few days. I wanted to see her," Farida said. "That was the last time I saw her."

When Fahima returned to Dhaka, she found more garment work, this time in Rana Plaza.

"The fire could not kill her, but this time she is gone," Farida said.

Farida left with her sister-in-law's body Wednesday night.

She will be buried next to her grandparents.

"I don't have regrets anymore. I am happy," Farida said. "She will rest in peace at home. She will live with us. She will see us from her grave. We will look after her and she will look after us."

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Associated Press writer Julhas Alam in Dhaka contributed to this report.