AS she knelt beside the linen-wrapped body and looked at the dress that she herself had purchased, Farida’s sobs of sorrow turned to tears of painful relief.
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. 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. 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, yesterday said Fahima had narrowly escaped the worst fire in the history of the country’s clothing industry last year. This disaster, she did not escape.
For Farida and countless other relatives of the workers who disappeared when the Rana Plaza structure came crashing down, the past week has been one of fading 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 the capital, 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 have waited outside the ruined building or crossed the congested city to visit hospitals and makeshift mortuaries, armed with only photographs. Posters of the missing are pasted on walls across the industrial suburb of Savar, where Rana Plaza once stood. The collage of faces provides a constant reminder of the scale of a disaster that has killed at least 433 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 south-west the day of the accident, he has checked every hospital survivors were rumoured 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 a mass burial on Wednesday in Jurain searching the bodies brought in on flatbed trucks and unloaded. He did find his daughter.
Police reported yesterday that 149 people are still missing from the 24 April disaster, but others say the numbers are much higher. More than 3,100 people worked at Rana Plaza and its five factories.
Two years ago, Fahima, then 16, left the family’s coastal village near the Bay of Bengal in search of work. Like so many girls from poor families, she started working long hours in clothing factories, sending home what money she could.
Farida said Fahima worked at the Tazreen clothing factory last year, but quit over a pay dispute. Three days later, the factory was destroyed in a fire that killed 112 workers. After narrowly missing the fire, Fahima returned to her village to visit her worried family.
“That was the last time I saw her,” Farida said.