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Bangladesh: The Ghosts of Rana Plaza

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Lutfer Rahman holds the document that his daughter found next to the body of his wife, Rina Rahman, confirming her death in the collapse. Image by Jason Motlagh. Bangladesh, 2014.
An interactive timeline presentation: The Ghosts of Rana Plaza.

Jason Motlagh traveled to Bangladesh to investigate the industry-wide failures that led to the Rana Plaza disaster, the worst accident in the history of the garment industry. A year later, many of the problems remain unresolved. His in-depth investigation is featured in the spring issue of VQR.

Four Days in April

On the morning of Thursday, April 24, 2013, traffic on the Dhaka–Aricha Highway was lighter than usual. On most days, the industrial artery that connects the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka to suburbs in the northwest is choked with Suzuki hatchbacks, scooters, and banged-​up buses that honk and belch incessantly as they carry commuters to construction sites and factories in towns like Dhamrai, Gakulnagor, and Savar, a subdistrict of the capital dominated by garment makers. But on that morning, they were in the third day of another nationwide hartal, or strike, called by opponents of the ruling Awami League party, the latest in a never-​ending cycle of political brinkmanship that had paralyzed the country on and off for years. Like power outages and flash floods, strikes are a fact of life in Bangladesh. In Savar and other manufacturing hubs, the protocol among working-​class people generally is to heed them or be prepared for trouble.

Rana Plaza, a hulking commercial complex that fronts the highway, was an exception that day. The building’s owner, Sohel Rana, insisted that employees report for work as usual, in defiance of the opposition, with plans to mobilize them for a possible street protest. This was not an empty gesture: On any given day, the plaza’s eight stories held as many as five thousand people, most of whom were employed by garment-​making companies linked to well-​known Western brands.

At his pastry shop across the street from the plaza, Saiful Islam was reading about the strike in the morning paper when he heard a shriek of breaking glass cut the air. He looked up to see shards of blue glass from the building that adjoined the plaza raining onto the far sidewalk, cutting several people waiting at the bus stand below. For a moment Islam assumed it was sabotage, a brick through a window, until the ground started to quake. Rana Plaza seemed to be imploding.

As the quake intensified, more panels blasted out onto the street, and several workers jumped to their deaths. Then the upper floors fell in quick succession, one after another, causing the bottom half of the building to pancake under their weight. In a matter of seconds, the eight-​story building was reduced to a heap of slabs and iron.

As the cloud of concrete dust began to settle on the rubble, Islam and others bolted across the street to look for survivors. Police and the fire brigade were called to the scene, but word of the collapse spread even faster through nearby bastis—​dense neighborhoods of concrete and tin barracks where poor garment-​making families live. By the time fire-​brigade officers showed up ten minutes later, an agitated crowd of hundreds had already gathered and was quickly swelling into a crowd of thousands, hindering authorities’ ability to access the site. “It was a human sea,” says Islam.

Lutfer Rahman, whose wife, Rina, worked at Rana Plaza, was sipping tea in their damp one-​room home when a neighbor yelled through his doorway: The plaza was gone. Lutfer and Rina had married in their hard-​bitten farming village and, like legions of people, moved to Dhaka for better prospects. They soon had two daughters, Arifa and Latifa, and Lutfer had supported the family by pulling a rickshaw until asthma forced him to quit. So Rina had become the breadwinner, a factory helper passing materials to sewing operators for 5,000 taka ($62) a month. Now, for the first time since he’d given up his rickshaw, Lutfer ran: about half a mile through the winding labyrinth of dirt lanes and workshops, past blacksmiths and brick kilns, trailed by his daughters. They reached the site just as two bodies were pulled from the wreckage, neither of them Rina’s. Lutfer, overwhelmed by the rising din of sirens and shouting, bent over to catch his breath.

The full story can be read in the spring issue of VQR and on its website.