Scarred for life
Eighteen-year-old Sharmin Sultana was on her way to the Govt Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam College at Laxmibazar on February 22, 2015. The hartal enforced by the opposition political party that day could not keep her at home as she had to get herself admitted to the accounting department of the college. A brilliant student who passed her HSC exams with GPA 5 last year, Sharmin had high aspirations. But everything changed for her as a sudden explosion of a crude bomb blew away part of the flesh from her waist. Since the attack, she has been receiving treatment at the Dhaka Medical College and Hospital. She has undergone several surgeries. The skin on her waist has been grafted with skin from her leg but her wound has still not fully healed.
Three months later, Sharmin seems to have become a permanent resident of the burn unit. Lying in bed, still in excruciating pain, she could not find any words to describe her pain or frustration with her life. Her mother spoke for her: "My daughter is not improving at all. She has severe pain in her leg and waist. It's been three months already. God knows how long it will take for her to recover. Her life has been ruined."
Sharmin's family has already spent one and a half lakh taka for her treatment. Although the government has promised to provide all the victims with family savings certificates as compensation, her family has not yet received anything. It is not possible for her father, a small trader, to spend more money for her treatment as the family is now in the midst of a financial hardship.
The victims who received treatment at DMCH's burn unit range from CNG, truck, and bus drivers to vendors, from rickshaw pullers to fish traders. This poorer section of our population have been the main victims of the destructive programmes of oborodh and hartal. The people who carried out such gruesome attacks on the innocent civilians have not even been identified by the police; they have gotten away scot-free.
For most of the victims of the three-month long political violence, the situation is more or less the same. Among the 183 burn victims who received treatment at the DMCH burn unit, 21 died and 150 of them went back home after recovery. Of them, a small number has received compensation from the government. The rest of the victims are living in extreme poverty; many were the only earning members of their families. Now, unable to work, they have no one to support them or their families.
For Salahudddin Bhuiyan (30), a victim of the Jatrabari arson attack, it may take years to get back to a normal life again. His facial burns are so deep that he still can't open his mouth properly to eat or talk. Three of his fingers have been disfigured. He had to go through a surgery recently in his right eye which he was unable to close. He will have to go through several other minor surgeries. Even then, Salahuddin may have to live with some permanent disfigurement for the rest of his life.
"So far we've received good treatment. But it is still not enough. I would be forever grateful to the government if they send him abroad for better treatment," says Urmi, Salahuddin's wife.
The government has not been able to provide security to the people. Now it is delaying the process of compensating the victims. If all victims are provided with family savings certificates, they will at least have a fixed monthly income. Procrastination in disbursing compensation will only worsen their condition.
Salahuddin Bhuiyan is one of the victims who have received compensation. He has received Tk 10 lakh in the form of a family saving certificate from the PM. But not everyone is as lucky. Ismail Hossain (50), who has sustained severe burns in his hands, legs and chest in a petrol bomb attack while driving a truck in Noakhali, is still unable to walk. It's been two months since his family provided all the information and documents sought by the government, but he is yet to receive any compensation. The situation is the same for 18-year-old Shafiqul Islam, a vendor, whose entire back and hands were burnt in an arson attack in Chouddagram of Comilla, and Md. Riaz (40), another truck driver who suffered serious burns in his hands, face and chest.
"The government has a list of the patients who were admitted to the unit. We have provided them with all the information we had," notes Dr. Mohammad Kamruzzaman, a plastic surgeon at the unit.
The government, however, has not revealed how many of the victims so far have received compensation and how long it will take to compensate the rest.
Dr. Julfikar Ali Lelin, director at the PMO, says, "The amount of money the victims will receive will vary depending on their injuries and situations. Victims who have suffered severe burns and may not be able to return to their previous jobs will get Tk 10 lakh each. Others will not receive the same amount."
"We have made a list of the victims, which has been sent to the respective District Commissioners. They will verify the documents and then report to us within a few days. Then we will decide what to do," he adds.
He, however, could not confirm how many people were eligible for compensation.
Besides giving them compensation, it is also important to rehabilitate them in other occupations.
"It will not be possible for many of the victims to get back to their previous work. As most of the victims were drivers who sustained severe injuries to their hands and legs, it will be difficult for them to sit behind the steering wheel again. The memory of the arson attack will haunt them for a long time. So they need to be rehabilitated," says Dr. Samanta Lal Sen, coordinator of the burn unit.
The writer is a journalist at The Daily Star.