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     Volume 7 Issue 9 | February 29, 2008 |

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Special Feature

Breaking Ships
Broken Hearts

Asfara Ahmed

As our dilapidated Land Rover approached the massive gates of the ship-breaking yard, the air was heavy, humid and assaulting to the lungs. It was a typical July day. Perspiration streamed down my father's neck. The clouds hung low in the sky. They seemed to follow us wherever we went.

Inside the yard, our car trembled its way through the winding path of mud and scrap metal. We stopped and our guide, a bald, chubby man of short stature and even shorter temper, stepped out.

He spoke very briefly to a man standing in front of our car. After a moment, with a swift gesture of his hand, he signaled us to get out.

“The path stops here,” he said. “We have to walk the rest of the way.”

With every step, I could hear the high pitched shriek of bending metal. Something stung my eyes. I could taste salt and metal in the air. Years of contact with rusting iron had coloured patches of the soil blood red.

Further off into the distant haze of dust and fog, half a dozen ships towered towards the angry sky. I was taken aback by the apparent randomness of their placement. For, objects that massive should be handled with greater care.

The shipyards employ thousands of men who risk their lives working in the most dangerous circumstances.
Photo: Asfara Ahmed

Sitakunda is the second largest ship breaking facility in the world, located about 10 km north of the port city of Chittagong in southeast Bangladesh. The ship breaking yards of Bangladesh supply 80-90% of the nation's steel. Ship breaking is a vital link in an eternal cycle of destruction and creation, the inevitable destiny of wood and metal after a lifetime of service. Here, these mighty ships are dissected and stripped of all valuable parts. The harvested scrap metal is then melted down and remolded into its various reincarnations. In its greatest resurrection, it is used to produce the strong corrugated iron rods that support the massive steel and concrete towers that have come to symbolize Bangladesh's steady economic expansion, an emergence of a new age.

Thirty-two separate ship- breaking yards are spread across 7 km of Sitakunda's coastline. In 2005, 135 ships, equaling a total weight of more than 1 million tons, were dismantled in Sitakunda. The shipyards employ, directly and indirectly, more than 300,000 people. They work in the most dangerous of circumstances. Most of the work is done manually or with the most primitive of tools. Safety precautions are never a consideration.

The ship breaking industry was born out of hardship and disaster following a cyclone in 1960 that destroyed property and killed thousands of people. The force of the storm beached the MD Alpine, a 20,000-ton Greek nautical giant on Sitakunda's virgin shores. As a testament to human endurance, residents used the sharp, twisted wreckage to ensure their economic survival. The growth of the industry was fueled by the destruction resulting from the 1971 war of independence, which left many ships unusable or in a state of disrepair. The struggle continues for the residents of Sitakunda. They still strive to do as much as they can with what little they have, in a dangerous and unforgiving environment.

The day before, we had visited an antique shop, five minutes away from the ship-breaking yard. Outside the shop, bright orange life jackets dangled lifelessly from a ceiling hook. The shopkeeper, a short, chubby man with a mischievous smile, eagerly welcomed us in. The interior of the shop smelled of brass polish. Paint peeling off the walls had formed giant scabs, exposing the coarse, dark gray cement that lay beneath. The rooms were filled with large, cluttered shelves of brightly polished gongs, clocks and telescopes, the relics of long-ago journeys, now forgotten.

The shopkeeper showed us to a steep, metal ladder that led to the second floor of the shop. I carefully climbed the aged ladder, as it bellowed out ominous creaks under the weight of my body, barely conquering my uneasiness and anxiety. The second floor was a maze of cluttered, dust-covered shelves. Small treasures suddenly caught my eye. Sharp silver dueling swords and bejeweled daggers protruded through the top of a brown paper carton. Large, jet-black touchstone Buddha statues sat on a nearby shelf, in deep contemplation, as small Chinese jade figurines stood steadfastly beside them. Intricately carved antique wooden boxes from distant lands revealed scenes of exotic cultures in painstaking detail. A blanket of ancient dust covered everything I saw. However, it had failed to diminish the beauty of these objects.

Today, down at the breaking yards, the shimmer of perfectly polished brass and silver was replaced by the reddish brown tinge of rusting iron.

As I walked on the beach, I quickly made my way towards the ships, away from my father's disapproving glance. I sensed the hostility in the air. He had made his feelings clear from the beginning of our journey. However, I empathized with his annoyance. How can one truly justify the lure of such a place, a place meant to repel rather than attract? My journey here was one of curiosity rather than necessity, a short stop on my way to a nearby factory to complete a university project. Yet, I was inexplicably drawn to it.

On, the beach, massive ships dominated the landscape. The shipyard workers seemed ant-like in comparison, very minute and insignificant.

I tried to make my way through piles of rusted scrap metal to get a view of the ocean. As I carefully balanced myself on a large metal beam, I finally saw the silvery outline of the Bay of Bengal on the distant horizon.

A mammoth cargo ship named “Orestic” blocked my path to the ocean. I followed the curvature of its hull with my gaze. There was a beauty to its structure. One immediately realises the grace and efficiency with which the mighty vessel must have sliced its way through the ocean. I carefully positioned my camera to take a picture and adjusted the zoom. I stared at the display, completely unsatisfied with the lighting and colour.

Sitakunda was notoriously dangerous for those who relied upon it for their livelihood. Once in a while, stories of explosions and accidents would pierce through our insulated existence and reach us through the local media. In 2005, a mysterious toxic gas was released from one such ship, instantly killing three people and causing skin and respiratory problems in others who were exposed. That same year, an explosion aboard an old oil tanker killed three and injured 20 others.

According to estimates by local nongovernmental organisations, as many as 400 workers have been killed, and more than 6,000 seriously injured in Sitakunda over the last 20 years. A survey by Greenpeace and International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) revealed that, on average, at least one worker is injured a day and one worker dies a week due to job related accidents in Bangladesh's many ship breaking yards.

The most devastating of such incidents occurred on May 31, 2000. 16 workers were burnt alive and 50 others were seriously injured by an explosion aboard a decommissioned Iranian oil tanker. Months later, I would read an article about the incident in the discoloured pages of a local news paper.

“The victims were identified as Azam, Giasuddin, Jamaluddin, Sumon, Hannan, Kuddus, Rafiq, Habibur Rahman and Hanif. The identities of the rest two could not be known.”

It was not the unusual use of the word “rest” that caught my immediate attention but the word “identity” and its profound implications. Without an identity, one is so easily forgotten. Without a name, one may simply disappear into the mist, without leaving the slightest impression upon the earth. The footprints of their treacherous journey surrender too easily to the ocean's relentless tides. Yet, despite the ocean's strength and persistence, it fails to cleanse the filth and grease from Sitakunda's defiled shores. It clings stubbornly to this land. The bond is too strong. It refuses to let go.

As I stood on the beach, a black and white newspaper photo I had once seen suddenly came to mind, depicting a charred, dismembered, monster of a ship, which had released large quantities of an unidentified flammable gas into the surrounding area. It had caused an explosion that had killed and injured many people. The picture was similar to the image that I had just captured, conveying a certain quality, mood and tone that I now recognised as characteristic of this place.

I was suddenly approached by a thin, bony man in a red tattered shirt with a lively curiosity. “Are you from the city? Are you here to photograph us?”

After a few clicks of my camera, I showed the man the pictures I had taken of him. His eyes widened as he focused on his picture in utter fascination.

“Sometimes, people from the city come to photograph us,” he said, as he handed me back the camera. “Whenever something bad happens, they are the first to come. They take pictures and then they leave.”

I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my gut. The feeling grew more and more intense as I continued to look at the man in the tattered red shirt, with the realisation that he could sense my guilt. I felt the blood rushing to my face in utter embarrassment.

“Your life here must be very difficult?” I said, as I noticed the premature wrinkles above his brow and the dark brown liver spots that were scattered across his sun scorched, leathery skin.

“It's bad for the heart,” he replied. “It's bad for the heart, living a life of such uncertainty. The only people who work here are those who cannot find work anywhere else.”

Many have lost their lives in this rubble, some without even leaving a trace of who they were.
Photo: Asfara Ahmed

As I saw the defeated look in his eyes, I knew exactly what he meant. He wasn't talking about the afflictions of the body. He was burdened by the afflictions of the mind and the soul.

From a distance, I spotted my father standing beside the car, hands in pocket and eyes locked impatiently on me. I knew it was time to go.

As our car drove away, the massive gates of the shipyard became smaller and smaller, till it was just an insignificant speck of dust on the rear windshield of our car. Finally, it disappeared completely, reduced to an afterthought in my overactive conscience.

The sharp pain in my gut grew stronger with the realisation that I had not bothered to ask the man his name. The man remained an enigma. In our time together, I had failed to gain any real insight into this man and his life. He would forever remain nameless, a distant memory of a silly foolish girl.

When I think of him, I picture him as I saw him last. For a brief moment, I had glanced back, expecting to see something I had missed. I took one last look at the thin man, whose story would never be completely told.

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