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Mounting psychological toll in Pinak 6 tragedy

For some, the experience had frayed their nerves to breaking point.

The need for closure after bereavement is well known and well understood, but the tremendous psychological effort required for keeping hope alive, and the jarring, even damaging effects of silence in the face of uncertainty are not often talked about.

When emergency responders do not share information at regular and brief intervals and when they do not rapidly set up a single site for families to congregate in and share information, console each other, and wait out the crisis, they perpetuate a sort of administrative anguish for survivors.

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A week ago, Shaheed Sardar was out in the fields of Kurghata village in Gournadi, Barisal, as he was every year around this time, tending to crops during the late monsoon.

He was preoccupied because his son-in-law was ill, but felt things were going fairly well for his family. Shaheed’s son was well established with a job in the military, he had been blessed with a grandchild just under a year ago, and now his family were on a trip to Dhaka to treat his son-in-law.

But circumstances were cruelly conspiring to unleash unimaginable loss upon him. Shaheed’s family would be making the journey up the Padma River and the weather had turned as they, along with hundreds of other passengers, were being packed like sardines by unscrupulous launch operators into a ship called the Pinak 6.

He was in the fields when he got the news that the launch had gone down, and rushed to Mawa Launch Terminal in the lungi and shirt he had on.

At Mawa, Shaheed’s search for his family began, but it has proven to be a harrowing experience; partly because the dead, spread across a vast area that is growing with the pull of the current, are less and less likely to be recovered, and partly because emergency responders haven’t done enough to mitigate the psychological effects on the victim’s families.

“I have lost my son Alamin Sardar, who worked in the Bangladesh Army, my daughter Mayna Akter, my 11 month-old grandson and Mayna’s mother-in-law,” Shaheed said.

“I do not know where I should go or how to find my family members. When word of a recovered dead body is announced I rush to see if it is one of them, but I haven’t found them yet,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.

Meanwhile, his son-in-law, Sabuj, Mayna’s husband, is waiting for his family at Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) where he was admitted on the second day of Eid-ul-Fitr for a brain illness. His four missing family members were travelling to meet him at the hospital.

“Sabuj hasn’t been told about the incident and the television in his hospital room was removed so he would not get news of the accident. I don’t know what to do. Four of my family members are missing and at the same time my son-in-law is facing a life-threatening condition in hospital,” Shaheed said exhausted from worry.

He has been in a kind of daze since the accident. Torn between two family crises, and fatigued by uncertainty, he has slept little and lost track of whether he has been eating.

The dispersed and ad-hoc manner in which bodies recovered from the river were laid out to be identified has had a spirit-crushing effect on families bereft of certainty, though not yet bereft of hope, and still not able to grieve.

Until a government announcement on Thursday that the victims’ remains would be kept at Pachchar Government Primary School because most of the victim families lived nearby, victim’s families were frantically travelling to and fro between several sites in search of news, any news.

Soon after the accident, Shaheed had received information that his son had been rescued by fishermen who sent him to a hospital in Madaripur sadar, but when he contacted a doctor there, it turned out to be false.

He then came to Pachchar Government Primary School from Mawa when he learnt that an accident victim’s body was being kept there.

But the dead woman who had been pulled from her watery grave was not one of his family members.

Shibchar’s Assistant Commissioner of Land Momin Uddin, who is in charge of transferring dead bodies to relatives, announced on the loudspeaker that a female body, aged approximately 40-42, wearing a black burqa, maroon salwar and a kameez printed with black spots, was recovered by Barisal port police.

The announcement of another recovered female body, this time in Barisal, sent Shaheed into an anxious state. He said he felt frustrated and tired at having to travel to Barisal to see if the body was that of one of his family members.

Shaheed’s despair from not knowing whether or not his loved ones were dead or alive is not difficult to comprehend. As he brings himself to the brink of exhaustion chasing down every lead he gets, it almost seems as though being allowed to grieve would be a merciful thing.

For some, the experience had frayed their nerves to breaking point.

While Shaheed prepared to go to Barisal, a middle-aged woman wearing white, a colour traditionally associated with widowhood, wailed inconsolably as she demanded to be shown her relative’s dead body.

Nearly mad from grief, her face stained with tears, the woman demanded to be shown the dead body held by the Red Crescent. But when officials and volunteers showed her the bloated corpse, she could not recognize the body.

The woman had no visible companions. Onlookers said she spoke to whoever would listen, and if no one in particular was speaking with her, she kept up a regular diatribe against everyone there. Her intense agitation and woeful laments made several people around her start crying.

As the number of people looking for lost loved ones converged upon the school, a shroud of strained anxiety and grief seemed to wrap around it.

Md Rubel, 10, who came from Gopalganj with his mother, said: “I have lost my father and two elder brothers who were the earning members of the family. My father was a rickshaw-puller and my brothers worked in a rickshaw workshop.”

“We have not found them. We have camped out at Mawa for three days. Now we have come here to find my father and brothers,” he added.

The vast majority of the travellers are working class people, for whom this disaster is counted in wage-days in addition to personal grief. The distances that these families have travelled, their constant moves as they follow up scant bits of information originating in a half a dozen locations, and the mounting travel costs that must be paid is creating another mini-disaster in their lives.

“I was able to give my mother two pieces of bread to eat in three days and some water. Nothing else,” he said.

“We have nowhere to live here. I do not know what we will do if we don’t find my father and brothers,” he said in a small voice.

His mother could not talk because she was physically and mentally exhausted.

Many families here had fallen silent. Earlier, sobbing had given way to very little speech, and then dejected silence.

Some might say that a grieving process had begun, and while that might well be true, it masked the physical exhaustion that the uncertainty and lack of coordination in the rescue and recovery process had caused.

The Red Crescent Society disaster response department’s Assistant Director Nurul Amin told the Dhaka Tribune: “Here, I have seen many people who are actually becoming psychologically weak and faint. They do not know what to do. Moreover, dead bodies cannot be identified because the water damage had disfigured them.”

“Many people have no shelter. They haven’t eaten food for many days. I do not know when they will leave but I worry about what they will do if they do not find their relatives. I worry about what they will do if they cannot find closure for this tragedy,” he said, his weariness apparent in his voice.

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This entry was posted on August 11, 2014 by in general people, Human rights, Industry and tagged , , .

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