Face-to-face with a few of them

Writer: Kakon Biswas

© Rahul Talukder

By Kakon Biswas

April 20, 2014

Translation Afsin Ahmed

It’s close to a year; maybe now Suruj’s mother will not cry when she sees me; she will not say, “Baba, come here. You looked after my Suruj till the end. Give me your hand, you caressed my Suruj with this hand. Let me kiss your hand baba, come here.” Maybe Shahjanahan’s wife, Jochna, will no longer say, “Please go and look inside once again, see if you can get Jihad’s father out.” Maybe 16 month old Jihad (Shahjahan’s son) will accuse me as his father’s killer — what he could not do at 4 months of age. Maybe my ears will not ring with the complaints of so many. I am only scared of them, whose remains are merged with the ruins of Rana Plaza, whom I have seen disappear into the sudden darkness right in front of my eyes. Now, the only fear is being faced with their questions. The struggle started right after reaching Savar on the 25th of April. Struggle — sometimes to free the dead from their concrete bonds, sometimes to extend the breath of the living, and sometimes to revive life in the olive-green body. Fighting, and with only one goal: to shorten the procession of the dead and to increase the number of the living. The goal was only redemption, but every death in Rana Plaza bore witness that this fight turned into a fight of responsibility.

When two doctors ran out of the almost collapsed building, screaming as it shook, leaving half done the cutting off of a woman’s leg in order to get her out alive after almost three hours of trying, and when they refused to go back after many requests, I was stuck with the thought: what can be done. Manik Khan, the bus driver from Savar, who was involved in the rescue with the Student Federation since the 24th, said that he could cut off the leg and get a trapped person out if someone went inside with him. Meanwhile, both of the doctors had left; we didn’t even have a knife, let alone any equipment for cutting bones. We got out and asked for help from the army — no answers. When even the medical camp answered in the negative, we started asking for machetes for Qurbani slaughter from the houses nearby. After finding nothing, Manik started cutting the bone with a hack-saw blade. Himalay Himu was sitting beside Manik, I was providing light from the opening of the hole with a torch. This goes on for an hour and a half, both time and work seem endless. After some time, Himu said, “Hold her, hurry.” A big crowd had formed by then. Together we pulled her out of the concrete prison. After getting the wounded woman on an ambulance, Himu put his head on my shoulder, looking for consolation. Disappointing him, I started crying out loud. The exchange of cries and consolations continued as we returned to camp..

After a few minutes, we came to know that Koushik, Bijoy, and others were pulling out a corpse from another side. Himu and I decided to get there. The worm-eaten dead body that we pulled out on the evening of 26th with Koushik, Himu, and Bijoy was wrapped in a cloth. There was no way to find out which way was the face and which way, the legs. The dead body accidentally fell from our shoulders while we were carrying it. We came to understand that it was no longer a body, only a shell for the worms. The journey resumed after we wrapped it up as well as we could. A mask covered my face, gloves on my hands, and the burden of a corpse on my shoulders — I was struggling. Suddenly I vomited inside the mask and was looking for someone to hold the corpse. Himu again — the most spirited rescuer of Rana Plaza as far as I have seen.

I don’t know if anyone from Student Federation who talked to Altaf can ever digest khichuri again. On the third day of being stuck like that, Altaf wanted to eat khichuri. We could not feed khichuri to Altaf. Every time we went to give him medicines, he said, “I know that you cannot get me out, what is the point of medicines then?” Suruj stopped taking medicines on the last day. Every request yielded to Suruj’s intense unwillingness to stay alive. The way Altaf, Suruj, and Shahjahan were buried, death was their only possible fate. What we cannot accept is that even after a year, the families of Suruj and Shahjahan had not received their dead bodies. What if Suruj and Shahjahan ask about their existence to me, to this society? — the thought scares me.

On the afternoon of 27th April, a twelve or thirteen year-old boy told us that he had found four living people on the third or fourth floor. We went there immediately. We saw that it was the same place from where we had pulled out a living person by cutting off their legs the previous day. Where three dead bodies started rotting. This is the place from where we wanted to pull out the dead bodies and asked the army for a rod-cutter to cut the rods. The thick rod that was inside the body of the person who was at the front and on the top could have been cut. If one rod could be cut, all of the dead bodies could have been returned to their families. But that did not happen, and even if we brought out the bodies, who can say that the families would get back them back? The bodies of Suruj and Shahjahan were brought out, but where are they? At first I went in ignoring the intense stench of rotting meat but came back within the range of torch-light when there was no sign of a living person. When I could not find anything, Himu went in and I followed with a small tube of oxygen in hand. Suddenly, Himu started losing consciousness due to lack of oxygen. Himu regained consciousness when somehow I pulled him towards light and gave him oxygen. That stubborn boy would prove that there were people inside and so he wanted to go back in and take a mobile phone with him so that he can record their voices. Necessarily, I did not let him go alone and went in again. I was on the verge of throwing up. The boy lost consciousness after going in for a bit. I gave him oxygen but his condition was unchanged. Then I took him on my back and came out rubbing my chest on the floor. I handed him to the other members of the team and started breathing deeply, as people do after getting freed from being buried under a pillow.

On the morning of the 28th, we found eleven people stuck together. We could not reach the place as it was in rubles and risky. Himu, my all-time companion in the rescue, was absent due to illness and so I was a bit restrained. Even though there was not much hope, we asked the army for help again. They were not in a condition to directly deny us seeing our determination and commitment to the work. So, they kept telling us about the various risks. I returned to the camp in a bad mood and talked to Firoz Ahmed, central leader of Gonosamhati Andolon. We must do something, but what? It started raining while I was thinking about that. I scolded a soldier whom I knew very well; signs of guilt for not being able to do anything were evident on his face. After a while, I saw that the soldier came to the level of the civilians, leaving his uniform, and reached that risky place where the eleven were stuck. After a lot of requests, a fire service personnel agreed to come with us. After the five of us, three from the Student Federation and two of them, worked for an hour and a half, we managed to get out all of the eleven. Sadly, two of them had already found their places on the list of the dead. An intense agitation caught hold of everyone when we rescued nine people alive, but the two had died as a result of our not being able to get to them in time.

A lot of times, we and the fire service worked together. Then again, we were removed when a minister came, so that they could show themselves off. We saw that sometimes the strength of common people wearing saris and lungis overpowers the trained forces and turns into an army-- an army wearing saris and lungis, the army of people, the army that has the will to work, a mix of technical knowledge, and above all, humanity, empathy for the people. Many times I got lost trying to find the living among the dead and got worried when a member of the team was lost, because if someone died trying to find a body among these corpses and got lost among the rubble, finding them would be like finding a needle in a haystack.

Kakon Biswas
Central Office Secretary, Dhaka City Branch, Bangladesh Student Federation (kakonbiswas311@gmail.com)