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Monday, May 13, 2013

Bangladesh building collapse: How many still missing? Who knows?

Photo: Relatives search for names of missing garments worker

Photo: Still missing

Numbers have always been a tricky issue in Bangladesh, so much so that there is disagreement over even the total population of the country.

There is always someone ready to raise questions about any "official figure" , whether it is the voter list or death figures from a road accident.

Not surprisingly then, when the eight-storey Rana Plaza collapsed on 24 April with thousands of people working in five garment factories, numbers became a hotly contested issue.

Two sets of figures are now accepted as accurate. Firstly, the number of people rescued alive, which stands at 2,438 and secondly, the number of bodies recovered from the rubble, which stands at more than 1,000 and keeps rising every day.

Calculating in the dark
But there is disagreement over how many are still missing - and hence, the total number likely to have died.

Nearly 3,500 people have already been accounted for, with unknown numbers still buried under the rubble”

More than two weeks after collapse, there is still no agreement on exactly how many workers and staff were present in the building. This has left officials calculating in darkness.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), initially said that 3,200 people may have been employed by the five factories located on the upper floors of the building.

But that figure now looks unrealistic. Nearly 3,500 people have already been accounted for, with unknown numbers still buried under the rubble.

Five days after the collapse a woman named Shahina was found alive.

But Shahina could not be rescued, as a fire sparked by metal cutting machines killed her on 28 April. One of the rescuers later died in hospital from burns sustained during the abortive rescue.

It was not expected that more survivors would be found, and rescuers switched their focus to recovering bodies.

Then another round of distrust about numbers was kicked off by none other than Maj Gen Hasan Suhrawardy, the man in charge of the recovery operation at the site.

On 1 May, he told journalists that only 149 people were missing, raising heckles across the social landscape. Even senior government officials expressed doubts about the figure.

Fake names?
Workers rescued from the site said many people had tried to escape down a stairway at the back of the building. They insisted that many bodies lay in that part of the building.

It appeared the general had used a list which local administration officials had stopped using. The police had their own, much larger list, based on people registering names of their missing relatives.

Officials worried that many names were appearing several times in different lists. They also worried that fraudsters might be at work, registering fake names to get compensation.

As a result of the confusion, all lists were taken down and officials stopped talking about the number missing.

'Disappearing' bodies
But more fuel was added to the fire by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, leader of the main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Addressing a big rally in Dhaka on 4 May, Mrs Zia accused the government of ''disappearing'' 900 bodies.

The opposition leader did not quote any source, but it reflected a sense of frustration and distrust among relatives of those missing.

Hundreds of relatives of the missing waited at the site everyday, desperate to ensure they at least got the body of their loved one so they could be buried properly.

But rumours soon spread that the army was about to bulldoze the site. Rumours were also spread that trucks removing debris from the site were being used to take away dead bodies.

Anger and frustration spilled over on one or two occasions and relatives, aided by locals, blocked army vehicles carrying debris.

Painstaking work by officials finally calmed the situation. The army made it clear there would be no bulldozing and that every effort would be made to recover any remaining bodies.

The military and fire brigade decided to use heavy equipment sparingly, only after ensuring that no body was left to be recovered.

It is perhaps this painstaking, time-consuming, brick-by-brick search for bodies that has allowed the rescuers to find a woman alive in the rubble on Friday, 12 days after the last survivor was found and 17 days after the building went down.

First appeared in BBC online, 10 May 2013

Sabir Mustafa, Editor, BBC Bengali service

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