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Death on purpose

After a factory building in Bangladesh collapsed and buried several thousand people, the filmmaker Shaheen Dill-Riaz watched the catastrophe unfold from far-away Berlin. He was not able to stand the sight and boarded a plane for his native country. He shared his experience with SPIEGEL ONLINE.

“Yes, it’s me. But don’t worry, I am still alive” said Kutti on the other end of the line. “It’s nice of you to get in touch again. If the garment factory hadn’t collapsed you probably wouldn’t have called.”

She was referring to the collapse of the factory on April 24 that cost the lives of over a thousand people: “Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d been at that factory too. The government is paying 700.000 Taka (ca. 7000 Euros) to every victim’s family. And the foreign companies are also paying. My death would have given my husband some means of existence. Our two children would have had a secure future. And maybe you could have shot another film, winning you a lot of prizes.”

Kutti laughed after her last sentence, as if she could see me and was enjoying the look on my face.

Kutti was one of the three protagonists portrayed in my 2003 film “The Happiest People”. At the time, she was working in a garment factory in Dhaka, just like the 3,000 women who were working in the five factories of the Rana Plaza high-rise that collapsed in Savar. Crammed into rooms situated between the third and eighth floors, they mostly produced clothing for western companies.

“They don’t even have a ladder”

I was in Berlin when the rescue work was underway in Savar, a small suburb of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. I sat in front of my computer, paralyzed by the steady stream of video clips, photos and comments posted by friends, photographers and journalists on Facebook and Twitter.

“Screw the pictures,” wrote one photographer. “All hands are needed here. We desperately need people to donate blood”. He and other photographers were among the first to make their way from Dhaka to Savar.

I felt the desperation in the text messages people were posting on the Internet via their mobile phones.

“How will we get through the concrete roof? It will take ages with hammers!” a boy posted from Savar.

“Get jackhammers, concrete saws“ someone from Finland replied.

“Where will we get this stuff here?” the boy wanted to know.

“The fire brigade has to have this kind of gear, goddammit!” someone else commented from South Africa.

“But they don’t. They don’t even have a ladder to get onto the roof!”

“My God, it’s taking forever to evacuate the casualties. They’ll bleed to death!” someone wrote from the scene of the accident.

“Take a roll of heavy fabric from one of the neighboring factories and turn it into a slide. Then let the injured slide down” someone from somewhere on this planet recommended.

It felt as if people from next door were crying for help. The feeling was so real that I just couldn’t take it anymore. I took a flight the very next day.

Provocation, Screams, Silence

I stood at the scene of the accident and saw only a pile of rubble. It was hot and humid. The smell of decaying bodies filled the air, it was difficult to breathe. The rescue effort had officially been called off. The area was being cleared with heavy machinery.

But Shahedol, one of the volunteers who had spent days digging out survivors from the rubble, remained. He and the others had been told to leave the vicinity.

“I get it. You Bengals from abroad show up when it’s all over,” the 40-year-old said. “You won’t even get the right pictures now!” Without rising to his provocation, I asked whether he thought any more survivors would be found.

“The people down there were treated like the scum of the earth while they were alive,” he replied with a calm voice. “Why should it be any different now? If they’re dead they’ll really be treated like nothing more than rubbish that needs to be disposed of.”

Babul, a young man in his 20s butted in: “The government should at least try to keep the rescue efforts going for a few more days. The British and the UN offered their help. They would have provided better machinery and experienced rescue workers free of charge. But the government declined the offer? Why?”

“Because it came too late!” Shahedul shouted. Suddenly there was quiet. He gazed at Babul for a long time and then turned his eyes on me. After a short pause he continued: “What if the British actually put their companies on a leash so subcontractors can’t send workers into these death traps in the first place? What if they tried to save workers before buildings collapse?”

Shahedul took a deep breath, came up close to me and said: “I hope they find even more bodies in the rubble. I hope even more photos of the dead are printed in European newspapers and are shown on TV. Until people finally realize what’s going on here.”

Difficult Identification

At a nearby school, hundreds of people waited for the bodies of their mothers and fathers, of their daughters and sons. They all carried photos of their relatives. A van pulled up, with a new load of bodies that were just laid out on the bare concrete floor. The crowd rushed towards them but most of the faces could no longer be recognized. Sometimes, the photos helped identify the corpses.

Ruhul Amin, who was about 60 years old, thought he had recognized his daughter Fatema because of an item of clothing. However, it turned out that the body in question had already been identified by another family. There were many such cases. Without ID, which most of the victims didn’t have on them, it was almost impossible to verify someone’s identity.

In the neighboring village of Jurain, graves where the unidentified bodies would be put to rest were being prepared. The death toll had already reached over 1,000. Nobody knew how many more bodies would be pulled from the rubble in the next few days.

I really wanted to be with those people but I also felt I had come too late.

I touched down in Germany at the end of last week and the next day I received the news that another fire had broken out in a garment factory in Dhaka. Eight people had lost their lives. There was also some good news – a woman had been found alive in the rubble in Savar, almost unharmed.

Factory owners in Bangladesh always claim that safety standards in their facilities are high. But why are there so many accidents? Why do so many people die time and again?

While shooting my documentary film “Ironeaters” I asked a worker at a shipwrecking yard this very question. His answer shut me up fast: “Sometimes we die on purpose, so you realize that we’re still alive over here. Otherwise you would never have come to see how we live.”

SPIEGEL ONLINE has granted the right to translate the original article and post it on this blog.

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