Humanity, Charity, and Reality TV: a case of the Rana Plaza Collapse
by Seuty Sabur for AlalODulal.org
Nitra, Pritha, Rahnuma, Saydia, Shifa, Lima, Ayon and I spent the whole of yesterday sorting and filing 1300 photos with information of those who went missing in the Rana Plaza collapse. Ayon photographed photos put up by the family members in and around Adhar Chandra School. They were ordinary portraits of young women showing off her mehendi design; a young lad posing like a movie star; travel photos in best dress; wedding photos; passport size mug shots; photos with family members. One photo indicated with an arrow that that person was wearing same dress as in the photo. I assumed that the photo was taken on that very morning, by her beloved. We found one person who was physically challenged but who was still working in the garments factory. There were photos of siblings, at least four sets of 2/3. It was an excruciatingly painful exercise to put face to unrecognizable corpse/absent bodies. They, the labourers were not faceless. They were not mere statistics.
I, along with Faruk Wasif, Hana, and Nasrin went to Savar on 25th April with dry food, water, and medical supplies like many others. It was a relatively safer day to reach Savar, as the air was still breathable with only a mild stench of corpse. We had contacted with Lima apa (Taslima) and her team of volunteers (GonoShonghoti and Student Federation). They navigated us through the ocean of people to the back of the Rana Plaza where our volunteers were rescuing people. Their relentless effort humbled me once again. There were hundreds of ordinary people like them. They did not wait for government directives to start their work. I saw an old man with a pack of biscuit, water, and saline waiting hesitantly. Nothing felt so humane. I saw curious audience waiting for a spectacle. I saw dozens of Pajero storming in and out of Enam Medical Hospital along with Kaleda Zia, leader of the opposition. I saw press cars trailing behind them for their scoop. There were some who never left, there were some who kept going back, and even when media spot light was gone.
Some channels telecasted the rescue operation live for the first few days. Since I don’t watch TV, I just caught glimpses as I was passing by the living room. On the very first day, I was perplexed to see our efficient journalists trying to get an interview of a trapped person while rescuers were trying to drill the concrete to pass oxygen. Then I saw one of the journalists blocking the rescuers just to finish his commentary. My favorite one is when they report from freshly a dug grave in Jurain (where the anonymous bodies would be buried the next day). Then, there was whole episode on ‘Shahina’ –the last living person who died in fire that broke out while rescuing her. For almost a week, it felt like we are plugged into watching these heart-breaking imageries, a new kind of reality TV show. As Layliuddin, my friend puts it; with a melancholic background score, it seemed too sanitized, and distant. I completely agree with her. With a heightened dramatized presentation, it felt like we are coerced to watch disaster pornography, running our testosterone level high. Facebook and other social media added another level to this drama. I could never match the news of the reporter to their biographical experiences. Their informal narratives were much more humane than their mechanical news. I have started believing that technicalities of corporate media and necessary bravado required for journalists’ saps life out of news itself.
Like everyone else, I witnessed Facebook flooded with information on where and how to contribute: what was needed in Savar (blood, medical supply, dry food, water, etc.). There were various fund-raising drives with details of the organization like Jago foundation, Smile Bangladesh, Sneha foundation, Asiatic initiative, and other charitable organization. I started receiving mails from my expat Bangladeshi friends asking me how to donate money. I personally raised a very small amount of money from family and friends to cover immediate costs of our rescuer working on the ground. I was touched by the generosity of the people in the time of crisis. Their kindness of mass and fortitude of our volunteers restored my faith once again. Some said this benevolence was a residual effect of Savar. Some said this crisis made us forget all sorts of antagonism, and ‘let a Hindus’ blood flow in Muslims’ vein, believers’ blood flow through atheists’ vein, and a middle class student’s blood through a workers vein.’ An innocent utopia dominated our psyche, momentarily. I saw bunch of Hefazat-e-Islami workers over a few hundred meters working hand in hand with our secular middle class students – a rare spirit indeed.
I was counting the figures of the donations, which made me completely dyslexic. A report says that Prime minister Sheikh Hasina received 10.14 cr in donation for Savar victims(New Age, Monday, May 6, 2013). I am assuming Smile, Asiatic, Jago, and Sneha foundation is capable of raising a minimum of one crore. My sources confirmed that the leather and footwear association raised Tk 50 lac. They are working closely with CRP and promised to provide 1000 jobs for Savar victims, especially those who are physically challenged. Unfortunately,BGMEA haven’t committed anything. Let along donations, they are even delaying the payments of wages to the victims(3617 in total) of this month and previous months which were overdue (New Age, Wednesday, May 8, 2013).I wonder how these factory owners sleep at night, or go on with their lives.
On one hand,a crisis like this brings philanthropists out of affluent class. On the other hand, there is a lack of tenacity to carry forward these works for a long time for various reasons. There are 19 teams who have been collecting data of the wounded/dead/missing people. There are few who are still going to the hospitals checking up the condition of the victims. Many of them have been released. With the media’s spotlights, most of the volunteers were gone. When left and liberals were celebrating ‘May day’, unidentified bodies had been buried at the Jurain graveyard. Even a week ago, rover scouts were carrying the dead bodies for free. But Lima called on 6th and was utterly frustrated that there was no one to receive the body. There was no one to feed the families of the victims who are still waiting on the bodies to be found. Her volunteers were not enough. We got an emergency call yesterday asking for supplies of tea, ice, salt, and bleaching powder to process the dead bodies.
The absence of socialites from the ground has a class element to it. One of the probable reasons might be the proximity or distance from working class. In a factory, an owner doesn’t necessarily need to know a sewing operator. For him s/he is just a number stitching X number of clothes. Under a neo-liberal economy, our consumption doesn’t let us see the people who are serving us. We no longer require staying in a close proximity to the working class and can lock ourselves in fortresses. This relative distance does make these service providers look like machines required for production, assist in domesticity; a nameless, faceless individual. Their information are only required for surveillance. More often than not they do not exist/belong to our cognitive world. Hence it is possible for us to be charitable and donate money as proxy to their life.
It has been raining all day, I was wondering where those family members will take shelter. Looking back at the photos and the computer-composed information, I was trying to imagine their state of mind. Most of them came to Savar for the first time, didn’t have any clue where to go. There are not many computer compositors in that vicinity; it must have taken ages to find computers, compose the information and then come back to Adhar chanda School to look for their loved ones.
Seuty Sabur is Assistant Professor of Department of Economics and Social Sciences at BRAC University, Dhaka. She blogs on AlalODulal.org