Published: Friday, May 10, 2013

PICKING UP THE PIECES

Live footage of the rescue operations and heartrending photographs in newspapers have awakened in people a deep sense of grief over the colossal loss of life and compassion for those who survived but have lost limbs along with their ability to earn. For survivors the ordeal still goes on. How will they go on without the ability to walk or use a sewing machine or even function normally? How will they feed their families? While the survivors agonise over such questions, people are showing their solidarity in different ways. Many are asking: How can we help?

Rana Plaza in Savar collapsed on April 24, leaving hundreds dead and over a thousand injured.  Photo: Prabir Das

Rana Plaza in Savar collapsed on April 24, leaving hundreds dead and over a thousand injured. Photo: Prabir Das

Karuna Sikdar lies helplessly on her hospital bed while her parents bustle around her, making sure she is comfortable, constantly asking her if she would like a drink of water, fussing with the blanket that covers her body.

A survivor of the Rana Plaza collapse, Karuna, 18, seems oblivious to all this attention as she lies with her eyes closed, her face locked in a painful grimace. Her mother says that her once-lively daughter now barely utters a word.

“I am a housewife and my husband works as a household help. Our daughter, obviously, made a huge contribution to our meagre income. But I don’t really care about that at the moment; I just want her to get better and come out of her shock,” says Karuna’s mother.

The National Institute of Traumatology and Rehabilitation Centre (NITOR) is overflowing with survivors of the Savar tragedy seeking treatment. Photo: Prabir Das

The National Institute of Traumatology and Rehabilitation Centre (NITOR) is overflowing with survivors of the Savar tragedy seeking treatment. Photo: Prabir Das

cs11Karuna, an employee at New Wave Apparel, had the relative good fortune of not being trapped for as long as many of the people who, like her, worked at the nine-storey Rana Plaza. She was rescued on 24th April, the very day the building collapsed. She is currently being treated for soft tissue injury and fractures in bed 24 at Dhaka’s National Institute of Traumatology and Orthopaedic Rehabilitation (NITOR).

Like Karuna’s parents, the families of numerous other survivors are currently focused on the victim’s well-being, but financial distress hovers over them. Despite assurances from the government, many hospitalized survivors don’t know how their families will survive the coming months without their income, while others have been injured so badly that they have given up hope of returning to the workforce.

“I am the breadwinner in my family, since my father is disabled and my mother stays at home to look after him. I have two younger sisters and I pay for my family’s every need,” says Khairunessa, 21, who is being treated in bed 26 at NITOR.

The wall outside Ward D of NITOR offers information, including name, age, address and diagnosis, along with photos of patients admitted there. Photo: Prabir Das

The wall outside Ward D of NITOR offers information, including name, age, address and diagnosis, along with photos of patients admitted there. Photo: Prabir Das

Khairunessa, who also worked at New Wave Apparel, is admitted with soft tissue damage and a head injury and has been suggested a three-month bed rest by doctors. Her mother says that despite the financial difficulties the family will have to face if her daughter doesn’t rejoin the workforce, she does not want Khairunessa to go back to work in the garments industry.

“She can go back to our village in Noagaon and start sewing for a living, but I don’t want my daughter to risk her life ever again by working in a garment factory,” she says.

The worst industrial disaster in the nation’s history has been caused by monstrous greed, by the complete disregard that a handful of unscrupulous employers showed for the value of human lives. However, the tragedy also brought out the best in people. Civilians, students and members of various organisations rushed to the site on the day of the disaster and stayed there till they were sure that they had saved as many lives as they possibly could. People from all walks of life bombarded hospitals and organisations with donations that helped buy medicines, supplies, food, and water for the survivors.

Many of the workers were fearful of going back to the factories but were forced to by the owners. Photo: Anisur Rahman

Many of the workers were fearful of going back to the factories but were forced to by the owners. Photo: Anisur Rahman

The work has not ended after the rescue mission. People are still worried about the survivors, and they want to know how they can continue helping the survivors and the victims’ families. Non-profit organisations like JAAGO Foundation are constantly asked about rehabilitation programmes and projects that can get the survivors back on their feet and allow families to mend their lives untroubled by financial need.

Korvi Rakshand, founder and Chairman of JAAGO Foundation, informed us that the organisation bought around 750 oxygen masks, helmets, cutting items, and other emergency supplies with the funds donated to them during the rescue mission. When survivors were being taken to hospitals, the foundation made sure that those attending to the patients were not forgotten in the chaos. Jaago provided food for around 15-20 attendants who were with the survivors at Apollo Hospital.

Also, JAAGO forwarded wheelchairs and 20 crutches to the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP), and assisted families of survivors with minor injuries with the travel costs for their trips back home.

“We want to make sure that we don’t spend all our funds at once. If we start spending the money on patients in the heat of the moment, we won’t be able to help them after three or four months when they are released from the hospitals,” says Korvi Rakshand.

c12The foundation has a large-scale, long term plan of building a village of sorts that will rehabilitate 100 disabled survivors, along with their families. Even though the plan is currently in the planning phase, Rakshand informed us that the foundation is already searching for 10-20 affordable acres of land in or around the capital. They are also in talks with organisations and corporations who could help sponsor the project.

“This will be a sustainable project, as we aim to provide the survivors and their families with a suitable home and employment opportunities. With the donations we receive from benefactors, we hope to help the survivors with funds that can help them establish entrepreneurial ventures such as shops and farms, through which they can earn a sustainable living,” Rakshand stated.

Aiming to create a “satellite city,” JAAGO intends to include a community centre, a school, and a medical centre within the community so that it is self-sufficient. Funds will be used to sustain survivors and their families for the first six months that they can’t go to work.

This survivor looks on with blank eyes, wondering what the future holds for her with an amputated hand.  Photo: Anisur Rahman

This survivor looks on with blank eyes, wondering what the future holds for her with an amputated hand. Photo: Anisur Rahman

JAAGO has already put together a database, created by volunteers of the foundation who collected information on the patients from various hospitals, that will help identify survivors who are in need of help. Patients’ phone numbers are being used as their unique identification. JAAGO is also collaborating with other organisations to ensure that repetition is avoided in terms of providing donations.

Iresh Zaker, Executive Director of Asiatech Marketing Communications Limited was one of the first people to organise a relief programme through his Facebook account, urging people to come forward with supplies such as dry food, medicines and water. Zaker, along with his colleagues, loaded numerous trucks with necessary supplies such as dry food, clothes, and medicines as enthusiastic donors answered his call and sent over emergency items to Asiatech.

While initially people were requested to only donate necessary items, eventually Zaker agreed to accept cash donated by people that will be used to rehabilitate and financially assist 300 survivors.

Zaker is working as an individual, only using Asiatech’s office base and human resources to send items to Savar victims. He is currently acting as a liaison who can connect interested benefactors to organisations that are actively working for the future rehabilitation of survivors.

“We’ve accounted for the victims so that we can avoid repetition. I am also trying to create a database by coordinating with a number of other organisations,” says Zaker.

cs13University students were amongst the first to rush to the aid of the trapped workers, helping the fire services and other rescue workers to save as many people as they could. While many of them worked tirelessly at the site, there were several others who made sure that the survivors and volunteers had everything they needed, from saline solution to coffin shrouds.

The United Nations Youth and Students Association of Bangladesh (UNYSAB) is one such youth organisation that is still working to ensure that the survivors are not left wanting.

On the first day UNYSAB collected equipment, glucose, food and water from benefactors for those at the site. On the second day, the organisation collected Tk 50,000 worth of medicines for the survivors. From the third day onwards, the organisation started collecting cash donations from benefactors that would help in the rehabilitation process of survivors.

“Our volunteers were sent to Dhaka Medical College, Enam Medical College, and NITOR on May 1 and 2 to collect data that would help us create a database and make a list of patients who would need immediate financial help,” says Anika Binte Kashem, Senior Vice President, UNYSAB.

An initial amount of Tk 5,000 each was given to 30 families that hadn’t received any financial help, to help them survive for the next couple of months.

Rehabilitation is a long and arduous process. Photo: Anisur Rahman

Rehabilitation is a long and arduous process. Photo: Anisur Rahman

“We are also creating a list of 30 more patients so we can support their rehabilitation and help them find work. With the donations that we continue to receive, we will also pay for additional treatment costs for those who need extended treatments,” informed Kashem.

The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRS) was amongst the first responders on the scene of the building crash. While around 200 youth volunteers joined the fire brigade and civil defence in the rescue and recovery mission, the organisation also established a mobile medical team which tended to the injured while Red Crescent’s ambulance service was used in full force to transport survivors to the different hospitals.

c16The funds donated to the Red Crescent were used to buy a range of items, starting from oxygen cans and air fresheners to body bags and coffin shrouds. State University of Bangladesh and Independent University of Bangladesh also donated cutting machines to the Red Crescent to help in the rescue mission.

“Tk 1 Lakh of the Tk 6 lakhs donated till date was spent on coffin shrouds alone,” said Motiur Rahman, Director, Relief and Response Programme, BDRS, emphasising the magnitude of the disaster.

BDRS has plans to start a project, the success of which will depend on the availability of funds. The project aims at providing financial support for a thousand patients.

“Under this project, we hope to provide prosthetic limbs to all those who have lost arms and legs in the disaster,” said Rahman.

Survivors are usually accompanied by attendants as they cannot even sit up by themselves.  Photo: Prabir Das

Survivors are usually accompanied by attendants as they cannot even sit up by themselves. Photo: Prabir Das

The organisation had also created a database that includes a list of people who require financial support, as well as the number of patients currently admitted in each hospital.

Groups on social networking sites such as Facebook have also played a major role in making organised, co-ordinated information about victims available to those who want to help.

The Facebook page Online Control Room for Volunteers of Bangladesh was founded by Mir Mahdi Mahbub, a PhD student currently studying in Sweden, who was in constant contact with his friends at Dhaka University. Mahbub quickly realised that even though there were many groups working for the victims of the disaster, there seemed to be a lack of coordination that allowed the unwitting dissemination of rumors and misinformation.

Roksana, 22, had to get her right foot amputated after it was crushed in the collapse. Photo: Prabir Das

Roksana, 22, had to get her right foot amputated after it was crushed in the collapse. Photo: Prabir Das

Administrators of the page noted that people would often view a post requiring an item for the victims on someone’s wall hours after there was no longer any need for the items.

“While Mahdi contacted volunteers of Bangladesh Red Crescent Society and Dhaka University, I was able to contact volunteers of JAAGO Foundation on site to coordinate what was needed and when,” said Poroma Kanya Peak, one of the administrators of the page.

cs14The administrators got all the contacts together on one page so that the list of the needs and patients were coordinated and as updated. Information on survivor needs were posted with the date and time along with hospital names, so that donors would know how and by when they could help, and the names and injuries of patients being treated at various hospitals.

Initially, lists flowed quickly from the site, and hospitals and volunteers collected much of the information within the first three days of the disaster. Administrators of the Facebook page aim to share information and updates whenever they are available.

“We hope to remain a source of information from which verified details regarding survivors is available,” Peak added.

“Rehabilitation is a long term process,” says Dr Abu Bakr Siddiqui, Doctor on Duty, NITOR. “After a patient’s operation, the body part that was operated on needs to heal, and only after consultation with experts can the next step be determined.”

16 survivors with spinal cord injuries have been admitted to the hospital, but most of them can be helped with relatively conservative medical treatment, even though the situation varies from patient to patient, according to Dr Siddiqui.

There are seven patients who have had to get amputations, but the good news is that most patients are responding positively to treatment. There have been no deaths reported, and many patients can return to their normal life after their treatment is over.

Dr Siddiqui asserted that even though the hospital didn’t accept donations, funds can be given directly to patients and their families. A list of donor names and the amounts donated has been created. Another list of future donors, who want to contribute to the rehabilitation of survivors, has also been created.

Unlike NITOR, the number of patients admitted to the Centre for Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) is relatively low; 47 people, mainly amputees, were admitted to CRP by May 6. Patient profiles of 25 people were created till May 2. The medical expenses of all the patients are funded by CRP.

cs15CRP is planning a proposal that funds the treatment and rehabilitation costs for a hundred patients. Under the proposal, CRP will offer vocational training to patients and fund the startup costs for those patients who want to start their own businesses. CRP will also be constantly checking up on patients to find out how they are doing and whether they were able to get a job after being released from the hospital.

“We will also help them with vocational training if they need or want to change their line of work, to make sure that they are provided with a sustainable future plan,” says Abida Rahman, Donor Liaison Officer, Fundraising Department, CRP.

cs17She adds that training will be provided to caregivers of patients to ensure that at least one person of the family can earn a living even if the other is unable to work any longer due to his/her disability.

While these organisations and individuals continue to work toward the healing and rehabilitation of the Savar survivors and their families, we, the people, also have a responsibility towards these brave souls. We cannot voice our abhorrence of the criminals only within the comfort of our homes. We can no longer mourn our helplessness. We have the power to change the fortunes of these survivors.

cs18Our contributions, however small, can give them the confidence to return to society with renewed hope and the will to live. These people have suffered enough. We can ease their suffering through our actions, our support. We can choose not to let this be yet another forgotten chapter in the history of industrial tragedies. Now is the time to lend a helping hand, to show the survivors that they are not alone, that we are with them, that they can turn to us for help, and that we won’t let them down.

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Survivors lie in pain wondering when they will wake up from this nightmare as doctors hover around them. Photo: Prabir Das

***

THE DAY THE WORLD CAVED IN

She was rescued 36 hours after being trapped; Rescuers had to amputate her left arm to save her life.

Twenty-two year-old Laboni Khanam, a graduate and married to Abu Musa was waiting for death along with her co-worker Sabiha, after the ceiling of the floor of Phantom Apparels Ltd where she worked as a ‘sister’ (nurse), caved in on April 24. Another co-worker, Dipa Patra had died immediately, in front of her when a big piece of concrete fell on her chest. The two waited all those hours asking each other from time to time whether the other was alive. Finally help did come after the excruciating hours of waiting.

At the ICU unit of Enam Medical College and Hospital at Savar on April 27 afternoon, Laboni relates her horrific ordeal to The Daily Star’s Head of Investigative Reporting Cell, JULFIKAR ALI MANIK.

Laboni Khanam lost her left arm in the collapse. Photo: Enamul Haq

Laboni Khanam lost her left arm in the collapse. Photo: Enamul Haq

“On April 23, it was about 10am. Workers were talking about the closing of the factory for that day due to crack developed in a pillar on the 3rd floor. I left the factory and went home. The whole day and even on Tuesday night I was not feeling comfortable about the crack in Rana Plaza.

But Wednesday morning when she heard that others were going to work, she decided to do the same. Before leaving she wanted to talk to her father and called, telling him about the crack. The line got cut as credit on the cell phone ran out but her father called back a while later when she was already in the factory urging her “Mamoni, you don’t need to stay here, just leave.”

“I was just thinking about leaving the factory as my father had suggested. At that moment I felt the building shake like it happens in an earthquake. I found the building was shaking and collapsing. I was standing on the floor but hurriedly sat down on the floor. I put my head on the floor and folded my legs the way people do when they crawl. It was full of dust and darkness. I felt a pillar near me fall down on my left arm. I was screaming. It was a nightmare. I felt my head, eyes, and nose bleeding…

Laboni and her husband Abu Musa were both students when they married in 2011. Laboni had finished graduation while her husband still had to complete his degree. From a lower-middle class family in Narail, getting a job at a graments factory in Savar seemed to be a good way to start for the couple. They rented a small room in Savar and Laboni started working as a ‘sister’ for both Phantom Apparels Ltd and Phantom tac Ltdlocated on the 4th and 5th floors for a Tk 10,000 salary. Her job was to give primary treatment to injured or sick workers. According to Laboni 600 to 700 workers worked on the 4th floor and 400 to 500 on the fifth.

“We were three persons in our chamber when the building started to collapse. Dipa Patra and welfare officer Sabiha were there. Dipa died immediately after a big piece of concrete structure fell down on her chest. Dipa’s lifeless body near me; I never heard anything from her. At one point I touched Dipa’s body with my right hand and found her body was cold.

“Then someone asked: ‘Are you alive Laboni?’ It was Sabiha, ‘I am alive’ I replied.

“The ceiling of our floor fell down in a way that I had no space to move up even a little. There was only an inch between my head and a wall, probably it was the ceiling. So there was no way to change my position. Only one of my legs could extend in the back and other one was folded all the time, as there was no space to extend it. I was in this same position for 36 hours. It was difficult to breath and the blood was all over my face; I had to keep my face down on the floor all the time. My mobile phone was in my right hand, I tried to call my husband, father, mother, but there was no network. It was totally dark. Sabiha was trapped near me but she had some space to move. We kept asking each other from time to time: ‘Are you alive?’ We kept calling Allah loudly. We were crying and also shouting saying ‘save us’, ‘save us.” But no one listened to our voice but we could hear other voices around us.

Some hours after I could smell Dipa’s decomposed body. It had become harder to breathe. At one pint some insect managed to get in and was flying around Dipa’s body and making an awful noise. It was unbearable. Whenever Sabiha and I heard other people shouting we also tried our best to shout to let them know we were alive.

Some people, probably rescuers, were asking from somewhere that, “If anyone is alive inside please make a sound.” We shouted, but no one heard us, because our sound was could not reach outside. I used to see the time on my mobile. So when I realised it was evening I believed I would not survive. I started to read some verses from the Quran. I could not sleep for a moment; Sabiha took brief naps from time to time. When we had fallen silent for a while one of us would again ask: “Are you alive?’ We spend whole night and the next day Thursday praying to Allah, and shouting for help. At one point, when I was felt death was imminent I started to dial some numbers of my family members from phone book of my mobile. I thought if I die, then rescuers would get my mobile and they would get these numbers easily in the dial list. So they would dial one of these numbers and then my family members would come to know about my death.”

It was next evening when rescuers finally found the two although getting them out was a gruelling task.

“Rescuers later came with some equipment to create space to take me out. I told them that Sabiha was there. They brought a machine to cut the pillar, which had fallen down on my left hand. But they realised that if they cut the pillar the ceiling of the sixth floor might collapse again and Sabiha and I would both die. Then rescuers decided to cut off my left arm under the pillar to save life of both of us. Some doctors were with the rescue team, they told me that they would have to amputate my left arm. I requested them to save me without cutting off my arm, but they explained that they did not have any other option to save the two lives.

They gave me anaesthesia before cutting my left arm. But I had some sense when doctors were cutting it. I can’t describe how painful it was. But just after cutting my arm I lost consciousness. When I came to I found myself lying on a bed.”

Sitting on the hospital bed with one limb gone Laboni mumbles: “This disaster wouldn’t have taken place if the factories were kept close after the crack developed in the pillar the day before…My life is ruined now. I pray that the lives of any other man or woman won’t be ruined like us. My request to the government is to do something fore me so that I can live my life in a way that no one will be able to ignore me or hurt me the rest of my life.”