NISHCHINTAPUR TRAGEDY: Letter from an unborn child

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by Saydia Gulrukh

Honourable prime minister,
I AM an unborn citizen of Bangladesh. I was killed before I was born. My mother was twenty-two weeks and three days pregnant with me when fire broke out at Tazreen Fashions in Nischintapur.

I was killed before I was born.

Ultrasonic images of pregnant Mimi (pseudonym) taken less than a fortnight before fire broke out at Tazreen Fashions on November 24, 2012 burning to death 112 workers, according to the government and the BGMEA; the actual death toll, according to family members of missing workers, labour organisations and activists, is much higher.

Honourable prime minister,
My mother, Mimi (pseudonym) worked as an operator in the sewing section of Tazreen Fashions. My father, Rakibul (pseudonym), works as a helper in a local bus company. They had met and fallen in love in Nischintapur’s factory surroundings, they got married at a nearby Kazi office (marriage registrar’s office). These days, say neighbours, they had been very happy, their joy radiated as does that of expectant parents. But it was short-lived.

I was killed before I was born.

Honourable prime minister,
One would have thought you would understand the pain of losing a relative even before s/he was born because you had experienced such loss in your own family. Your nephew and his pregnant wife were shot dead on August 15, 1975. But, unfortunately, your heart does not bleed for garment workers like it does for your own family members. For years we have heard you talk about bringing the killers of your family members to justice, but we don’t hear you talk about bringing my mother’s killer, Tazreen’s factory-owner, to justice whose criminal indifference to fire safety measures resulted in this tragedy. He walks free as does Garib and Garib’s factory-owner, as does Ha’meem’s factory-owner, while you deflect attention by raising suspicions that the evil hands of anti-liberation forces were behind the fire at Tazreen.

Honourable prime minister,
This is December, the month of bijoy when we won victory. In this month, I ask, what kind of independence is this when even a mother’s womb is not safe for her child?

Respected BGMEA chairperson,
Greed must have blinded you, it must have deprived you of all human emotions. How else could you say that a death trap like Tazreen Fashions is a compliant factory (Samakal, November 28)? Why else would the death of so many workers appear to you as an ‘image crisis’ for Bangladesh (Samakal, December 15)? Can you imagine how heavy it is for a father to carry around ultrasonic images of an unborn child — a child burnt dead inside his wife’s womb?

Counting money must be all-consuming, I say this, because our stories do not seem to reach you. On November 12, my parents went to the New Modern Diagnostic Centre at Narsinghapur for my mother’s ultra-sonogram. My father was full of awe as he stared at the screen, at the stirring of life. They were thrilled to hear my heartbeat. On returning home, my mother placed the ultrasono report inside a folded sari.

Now, twelve days later, there is nothing of me left for my father but these ultrasono images. Nothing of my mother left for him but her passport size photo.

He couldn’t find my mother’s dead body. He spent a night at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital morgue surrounded by decomposing and burnt  bodies. He looked hard at each body, trying desperately to identify her remains.

Dear BGMEA chairperson
Have you ever been to a morgue? Have you ever seen piles of  bodies, smelt their sickening smell? Would you be able to recognise your wife, your daughter, your brother’s charred skeletal remains? Do you ever think of death? I hope you have instructed your heirs to bury you with your chequebook. But do rich people die?

Dear BGMEA members,
The loss of lives at Tazreen Fashions has shaken the whole world but you seem unaffected. Recently, one of you talked about the series of daily meetings that the BGMEA had organised with representatives of world class buyers to recover from their image crisis (Samakal, December 15). But neither the BGMEA nor any of you have made any sincere effort to provide help and support to the families of missing workers like my father. Greed must have blinded you, deprived you of all human emotions.

Dear Tazreen factory-owner,
On November 24, my parents ate lunch together. They ate from the same plate. My mother even complained about the production manager’s smoking habits, how it made her feel nauseous. They didn’t know what awaited them that evening.

When the fire alarm rang in the evening, my father got a call from my mother. He rushed to the place, he tried to enter the building, but the factory security stopped him. He couldn’t rush to my mother’s rescue. He stood motionless outside the building, he witnessed the blazing fire burn his life to ashes.

Dear Tazreen factory-owner,
I was killed before I was born, because your factory had no fire exit. Didn’t your factory’s fire-safety certificate expire on June 30, 2012 (Samakal, December 8)? Who did you bribe, how much did you pay to keep the factory running after the safety date had expired? Isn’t bribing a criminal offence in Bangladesh? Is this why you ran away from the factory through its back door exit that night (Samakal, November 29)?

Dear Tazreen factory-owner,
As Delta Insurance processes your koti taka claim, my father went and borrowed 500 taka at a high interest rate just to go over to the National Forensic Laboratory for DNA profiling in Dhaka. He wanted to know if the DNA test could prove my mother’s pregnancy. My maternal grandparents keep denying my parents’ marriage. Their denial is a denial of his loss, his grief. My father says he doesn’t want the compensation, he wants his in-laws to recognise their marriage, he wants to be included in the planning of a gayebana janaja, a dua for his wife. He is crippled with anger and grief. These days, he often looks around blankly, as if the world had suddenly disappeared in front of his eyes. These days, his eyes beseech people around him, he wants them to understand his pain.

Dear garment factory-owners,
I do not expect you to understand my father’s loss, but can you tell me why you should not be blamed for ruining his life? Our lives?

Dear garment factory-owners,
Look around you, tell me, how many more factories are there in Nischintapur without a fire exit? Tell me why should all of you not be blamed for the pain and suffering which we endure in our lives?

Dear shoppers,
One of you may be still wearing a piece of clothing made by my mother or by one of her dead colleagues. During your trips to attend some conference or the other, some of you may have picked up Faded Glory jeans or Walt Disney T-shirts for your children in New York. In your most recent business trip to Europe, you may have stopped by at an H&M store. These brand names are familiar to you, but the plight of our lives remains unknown.

While the people of Nischintapur heard the unbearable sound of Tazreen Fashions workers screaming aloud to escape the raging flames, while they heard the sound of skulls popping open, the owners of Westecs, Trendz, BigBoss, Ecstasy and Basundhara shopping mall kept their shops open, they attended customers like you. Do the ashes of our burnt bodies make your shopping experience more exciting? More thrilling? How else could you not even blink at our loss? Not think of boycotting these shops?

Dear shoppers,
I saw with my mother’s eyes how workers desperately tried to flee from the blazing fire. As their clothes and hair caught fire, some of them took off their clothes and cut off their braids to be rid of the flames. I witnessed men and women running around naked, pleading, screaming, praying. My mother had inhaled smoke, she fell down slowly, our heartbeats kept dropping. We screamed and screamed till our last breath to survive but you turned a deaf ear.

The comfort of being able to buy brand clothing must have taken away a very basic human emotion from you — empathy. Why else shouldn’t you be walking out of the store demanding the punishment of those who killed us?

The fire at Tazreen Fashions raged for twelve hours, it burnt away the last traces of our lives, it burnt away all marks of identification, face, flesh, clothes, hair, but it failed to burn your class-ed indifference.

Dear reader,
I am an unborn citizen of Bangladesh. I was killed before I was born. My mother was twenty-two weeks and three days pregnant with me when Tazreen Fashions caught fire. I demand the punishment of all — most importantly, factory-owners — whose criminal negligence took many lives at Tazreen Fashions (2012), Ha’meem Group (2010), Garib and Garib Sweater Factory (2010), KTS Textile Industries (2006), Shan Knitting (2005), Mico Sweater (2001), Chowdhury Knitwear Garments factory (2000), Globe Knitting (2000), Shanghai Apparels (1997), Jahanara Fashion (1997), Lusaka Garments (1996), and Saraka Garments (1990). I want you to lend your voice, so that my demand can grow stronger.

Dear reader,
If you think your silence is innocent you are wrong. Your ‘silence’ speaks, it takes sides with those who value profit over people.

Dear reader,
I dream of the day when the children of Bangladesh’s garment workers, those living, will not be made orphans because of factory fires. And those unborn, like myself, will not burn to death, trapped inside their mother’s womb.

But dear reader, for my dreams to become real, since I died unborn, those living, like you, must fight and struggle. You must insist that garment factories not be death traps. That what happened at Tazreen — and all those others before — never, ever happen again.

Will you?

Expectantly yours,

An unborn citizen of Bangladesh
Saydia Gulrukh is a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, US. She interrupted her fieldwork and along with other members of ActivistNribigyan worked in Nischintapur in search of Tazreen’s missing workers.

Published in New Age, Monday, December 24, 2012

Please Retweet #garments #Tazreen #BGMEA #Bangladesh #fire

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