Traumatised, left mostly uncared for
At nightfall, Zulekha Begum goes to bed but quite often she does not get a full night's sleep. The traumatic scenes that unfolded before her eyes a year ago still haunt her, ghost-like.
The 30-year-old survivor of Rana Plaza collapse says the most frightening part of her dreams is when her dead colleagues come to her and blame her for not giving them water at the time of their death.
Zulekha, however, is not alone in her affliction. Some 24 percent of over 2,400 survivors and rescue workers are in the same boat as her, according to a study by ActionAid Bangladesh.
They either have difficulty sleeping or get uncontrollable fits, and not least, their phobia of multi-storey buildings, getting under concrete roofs and darkness. Several of them are hounded by the pong of dead bodies, while some randomly start to behave abnormally.
The condition has been barring them from leading normal lives and getting re-employed a year after the tragic event, the deadliest industrial accident in the nation's history. And, in the odd chance that they find work, they have to quit before long: the haunted memories severely encumber their performance.
Unfortunately, the issue, which, psychiatrists say, can rouse suicidal tendencies, never got any attention from the government. While some international donors and nongovernmental organisations came forward to provide psychological support, the operations petered out after some time.
For instance, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), with support from World Health Organisation, provided psychological first-aid, counselling and medicine to around 4,000 survivors after the collapse, but the operation ended on November 30 last year in the absence of funds, according to NIMH Director Dr Waziul Alam Chowdhury.
Financial support and physical treatment for the injured got all the attention in the past one year, but psychiatric treatment is no less vital, he said, citing the suicide of Salma Akhter, an injured worker, in January.
“It is necessary to continue follow-up support to help the traumatised survivors recover. The sad incidents like suicide might not happen and many could recover from deep depression if we could properly see through the treatments.”
Dr Solaiman Hossain Mehedi, registrar of Centre for Rehabilitation of the Paralysed, reiterated the same. “But I have not seen any initiative from the government to support the traumatised workers.”
“In my dreams, I still see my dead floor in-charge coming to me laughing. I want to get rid of this. I am scared to live alone in the dark,” said Nilufa Begum, who saw nearly a dozen of her colleagues die in front of her eyes following the collapse of the eight-storey building.
She got five days of counselling from psychiatrists when she was in the hospital getting treatment on her paralysed leg, but it was not enough.
“It relieved me a great deal from trauma. I really felt good after that. But it was not adequate,” said the 35-year old, who also suffers from splitting headache.
For want of professional facilitation, many of the traumatised workers have turned to local charlatans or witch doctors to snap them out of their ordeal.
Take, Zohra Akter Mili, a 22-year-old survivor of Rana Plaza, who is now relying on an amulet procured from a witch doctor to help her move on with her life. She acts hysterically whenever memories of her missing husband flash back.
Dr Abul Kasem Md Khaleequzzaman, senior assistant registrar of NIMH, said there are over 100 deeply traumatised Rana Plaza workers who need to be admitted for psychological treatment.
“But these patients are not coming to the institute, although we are ready.”
Contacted, MM Neazuddin, secretary of Health and Family Welfare ministry, said there is an instruction to specialised hospitals to provide treatment to the affected workers of Rana Plaza.
He said it is difficult for the government to know who are traumatised and who are not. “How can we know unless they come to us?”
Neazuddin's point can best be illustrated by Zulekha, who is scared to seek treatment for her mental health lest it requires more money, which she can ill afford.
Her family is under severe financial stress due to her condition, which also includes severe headache and breast infection. She has resigned to a life like this, if it secures the livelihood and education of her two daughters.