Jostna. a young girl lay on a metal trolley inside the morgue. I looked at her through the iron gate that stood between us. She was wearing a floral print yellow salwar kameez. I couldn’t tell whether her breathtakingly beautiful curly hair was covering her face or her head was turned away. Growing up, I have always wanted curly wavy hair like her.
Her aunt standing against the iron gate, softly talking to her, tears trickling down her face, “wake up, Jotsna, wake up.” She did not wake up. She was killed in the factory fire at Smart Expo Ltd on January 26, 2013.
In remembrance of her death, on her death anniversary, my friend Waira sent me a photograph of Jotsna. In the photograph, she is leaning on a closed white-wooden door. Graceful bodily comportment and gentle smile kept my attention from all the other details. I look closely. Holding a beaded fuchsia clutch, pair of golden chandelier earring, an ornamental watch on her right hand – she was all adorned. Here too she is wearing a yellow salwar kameez. I asked her father,Waira writes, if yellow was her favorite color. He does not know. We will never know.
“Smart Export Ltd is still an abandoned building,” she continues. “Charred jackets from Zara or Bershka scattered everywhere are haunting the building. No memorial march came here to remember the deadly fire and the loss of lives, like they did at Tazreen. No candles are lit.”
A few days after the two years anniversary of Tazreen fire, I went to Jurain Public Graveyard with two other comrades to pay our tribute quietly. Unidentified victims of the fire are buried here. We have known them through their absence.
Grave number 1 is Jesmin Akter Sharmin. She was five months pregnant with a baby girl when she was killed.
Grave number 5 is Shahnaj. She had ordered a silver anklet with the local jewelry shop and never returned to collect it.
Those numbers are not there anymore, but we know them by heart. Sabuj bhai bends down and picks up a torn women’s shoe from the hole that was/is Shahida’s grave. Now what remains of their graves are just series of grave shape holes and three graves with newly made tombs. When we approached the manager of the graveyard, “why did you just work on three graves?” His answer was quite telling, “Labor leaders and others needed a pedestal to place their flower bouquet on the anniversary.”
And, I thought, do organized act of commemoration enforce a process of organized oblivion?
Two decades ago, it was not common to memorialize workers lives at a national level. In 1990, more than 32 garment workers were killed in a fire at Saraka factory. A few headlines in newspapers and the story was shelved. To fight against this forgetfulness, a decade later, some labor organizations declared the day of the fire (December 27) as Saraka day. However, the day never gathered any attention outside the circle of labor rights activists.
In the aftermath Tazreen fire and the collapse of Rana Plaza, we notice a shift in the commemorative practice in Bangladesh. All electronic media will run a two minutes package showcasing the suffering of the injured victims. Print media will do the same. National leaders would pay respect, send statement to the media houses. Tragically, it took thousands workers’ lives and two decades to secure the right to be remembered.
However, we are slipping into a new form of oblivion. I am not just talking about how media attention at catastrophe with greater casualty keeping silent about deaths in Smart Export Ltd or Aswad Composit Mills, I am concerned that the way these days are commemorated are largely becoming another tool to make the observing actor’s (government bodies, NGOs orabor organizations ) presence marked. The name of the organization written on the flower bouquet, the wo/man leader laying flower on the grave gains legitimacy to speak on workers behalf for better or worst. For some, workers grave, the site of the disaster became a stage to ensure visibility.