Dhaka (Bangladesh): Holding a photograph of her son in one hand and a bone in another, Mehera stands silently surrounded by rubble at the site which once housed Bangladesh’s ill-fated Rana Plaza factory complex.
Her son Babu Mia, 23, was on shift in one of the complex’s five garment factories when it collapsed on the morning of April 24, 2013, leaving more than 1,100 people dead in one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.
The collapse triggered international outrage and put pressure on European and US brands who had placed orders to improve the woeful pay and conditions at Bangladesh’s 4,500 garment factories.
Two years on, nearly $25 million in compensation has been paid out to survivors and relatives of the dead.
But Mehera, a widow who uses only one name, is one of hundreds of family members who remain in limbo — knowing in her heart that her son is gone for good, but without a body to mourn.
Babu, who was the family’s sole breadwinner, is one of around 130 workers who are presumed to have died when the flimsy building imploded but whose bodies have never been recovered.
“I’m convinced these are his bones,” said 55-year-old Mehera as she pointed to remains found amid the tangle of concrete.
“When I touched this fabric and this bone, my heart told me it was my son’s. He was wearing his favourite trousers that day,” added Mehera as she cradled a bone fragment embedded with tiny strands of black cloth.
“And here’s his finger,” she said, picking up another small bone.
Dozens of bones have been found in the last two years, some of which lie in piles and others left to poke out from the rubble, bleached by the sun.
The sporadic discovery of remains has fuelled the anger of relatives who say authorities were too quick to send in the bulldozers to shovel up most of the debris.
By the time the three-week rescue operation ended, a total of 1,129 bodies had been recovered.
Around 800 were handed over to relatives after they were identified, but 300 were buried en masse as they were too badly decomposed to identify.
A medical lab has since identified some 200 of those buried in unmarked graves by matching DNA samples with relatives.
But Anwarul Islam Khandaker, a government official whose office has tallied the dead and missing, said 135 workers remain unaccounted for.
“But there is no way of finding them now,” he told AFP. “All the relatives can do is pray for the salvation of their souls.”
That means people like Mehera and dozens other who have travelled to the disaster site from remote villages ahead of the second anniversary of the tragedy are unlikely to ever achieve closure.
In the aftermath of the collapse they spent months searching morgues on the off-chance that the bodies had surfaced there.
Meanwhile, as a UN-backed trust fund wraps up its task of compensating victims’ families, some relatives have not received a cent as they have been unable to prove that their loved ones did indeed die.
Mojtaba Kazazi, head of the Rana Plaza Claims Administration, said relatives of people classified as missing, presumed dead are among the 3,000 people to have received compensation.
Relatives of some two dozen missing workers may have not been compensated as they could not back up their claims with documentation, said Kazazi.
“We’ve included the relatives of missing workers as much as possible for compensation. But if anyone has been left out, he or she should come to us quickly,” he added.
With the trust fund due to wind up in June, time is running out for people like Jahanara, who lost her 24-year-old daughter Nuri Begum.
– Missing paperwork –
Sat under the scorching sun at Rana Plaza, Jahanara said she had given up hope of getting any compensation as she cannot locate the right paperwork, but is still desperate to learn what happened to Nuri.
“I come here every day,” she said as she took an AFP reporter on a tour of the ruined site, which features a makeshift memorial and pond.
“There’s a fire in my heart that brings me here. I am sure she’s buried somewhere here,” said Jahanara, who like many Bangladeshis uses one name.
The 50-year-old, who is also a survivor of the collapse, said she now has to beg as she suffered leg injuries that have made her too weak to work.
Ayesha Khatun has travelled for the anniversary from the border district of Kushtia as a tribute to her missing daughter Nurjahan Khatun, 18.
“All I want is to know the place where she is sleeping,” she said, adding that she got only 51,000 taka ($658) as compensation, although some people received two million taka.
Campaigners say the trust fund’s lifespan should be extended so it can compensate more relatives of the missing.
“It would be a double tragedy if these poor people don’t get anything,” said Kalpona Akter, head of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.
“It’s bad enough not to be able to mourn your loved, without then losing out on compensation.”