"In the event of something happening to me,
There is something I would like you all to see.
It's just a photograph of someone that I knew.
Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones?"
It was a scene of oversize heaps of concrete and crooked iron rods impaling the heart of the nation as I arrived at Savar at about 9:30am that sticky morning.
The unremarkable white building had collapsed floor by floor, like a house of cards. Between each stack were buried the products of our shameful avarice and lust, stony hearts and sheer unconcern for those who would spend 12 hours at a stretch in a sweatshop just to keep their souls tied to the body. Hardly finding time to go for lunch or the washroom.
On that muggy morning, thousands of people had gathered on that open field around the fallen structure, frenetically looking for their near and dear ones who were inside.
They did not wait for the army trooper and fire fighters, who were on the scene too, desperately trying to find a way to rescue the trapped.
Like some feral animals, the locals had started removing the concrete with their bare hands and furiously combing the floors – for any sign of life.
"Koi? Koi?" they kept screaming. "Rahim. Bakir. Sohel," names came rolling off.
From inside that hell came hoarse groans.
"Ei khaney. Alo dey. Pani. Pani. (Here. Light. Give me water. Water.)"
I clambered on some concrete structure and tried to peek into the harrowing darkness. I could clearly hear people crying for help from inside. Their voices sounded ghoulishly hoarse; the approaching death contoured their voices to a different kind. They did not sound like human voices.
That day was swelteringly hot and dusty.
It looked like a hopeless game.
How can they ever move this thing even an inch? There were noises around, people crying, people lamenting, people calling their trapped relatives in loud voices, people planning how to go about the rescue operation.
At one point, army soldiers had inserted long hose pipes inside that incredible rubble and started pumping oxygen. In there, people would just die from the heat and lack of air. Beams of flash lights flickered around.
"Do you know what it's like on the outside?
Don't go talking too loud, you'll cause a landslide, Mr. Jones.
I keep straining my ears to hear a sound.
Maybe someone is digging underground."
And then suddenly, just miraculously, a slight boy of no more than 18 years of age emerged from the gut of the heap. His one hand dangling in an odd angle. I can still remember the look in his eyes.
He had a chocolate brown complexion, but his face had gone ashen. He did not look at anybody. He just jumped off the concrete slab and bolted through the field, as if he was running away from a pack of famished wolves.
I went to the Enam Hospital where all the bodies that could be dragged out were taken. The gate was locked and nobody was allowed in. One of the doctors there was my friend and I called him to let me in.
There was a long shade in the open where he led me. Under the shade lay the shrouded corpses. Hundreds of them in neat rows, all gone cold and stiff from rigor mortis.
There was a swarm of people. They were all slowly walking through the rows, without uttering a single word. They stopped in front of each corpse and raised the cloth to see the face.
They would lean close to the body. Then quietly drop the cloth and move to the next one. They were searching for their fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers.
Two young boys, looking quite different from the others in their fancy clothes, were quietly searching too. Their father, the general manager of the factory, was missing.
Then there was this corpse, looking grotesquely bloated because it had simply been squashed into a two-foot chunk of meat.
These are the grapeshot scenes of the day that so vulgarly brought forward the ugly face of our cut-throat entrepreneurship, industrial regulations, governance, exports, development and the even more sinister face of the global clothing retailers like Mango and Primark.
That was the day that the global clothing business toppled from the pedestal of high moral, the so-called liberal Western values and all.
But that also was a watershed for Bangladesh's plucky garment industry and the birth of a comparatively organised one.
And yet that has also laid bare how unconcerned a state can be when it comes to meting out justice to the victims.
The death of over 1,100 workers and maiming of another thousands should have shaken the basis of a nation. It hardly twanged the pillars.
For the next day, and the day after that, and after that, night after night, thousands sat beside the rubble, hollow-eyed, holding pictures of their lost relatives, trapped somewhere inside that ghoulish place, and hoping against hope that the rescuers will not give up and walk away by the shadow of the night.
By then the whole thing was a terrible syncopation of death and despair.
"Have they given up and all gone home to bed,
Thinking those who once existed must be dead.
Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones?
Do you know what it's like on the outside?
Don't go talking too loud, you'll cause a landslide, Mr. Jones."
Eventually, every corpse was dragged out from inside. And, what can only be viewed as a miracle, one person was pulled out alive, 17 days later, from the debris. And with that the rescuers also dragged out the narrow ugly face of the global clothing chain.
It was found out that at least 29 global brands had recent or current orders with at least one of the five garment factories in the Rana Plaza building, including Benetton (Italy), Bonmarche (UK), Cato Fashions (USA), The Children's Place (USA), El Corte
Ingles (Spain), Joe Fresh (Loblaws, Canada), Kik (Germany), Mango (Spain), Matalan (UK), Primark (Ireland) and Texman (Denmark).
And they had the moral responsibility to own up this disaster and compensate the victims and their families. A recent amendment to the labour code requires employers to insure themselves against liability.
No such obligation was in force at the time Tazreen Fashions, another garment factory less than 10 kilometres away, caught fire, six months before Rana Plaza collapsed.
The amounts of compensation envisaged are also very low and take the form of lump sums, offering inadequate protection to beneficiaries against ill health and poverty in the medium and long term. The system is also plagued by major weaknesses.
Calculations based on International Labour Organisation convention 121 showed that the families of those affected by the Rana Plaza collapse are owed $30 million in compensation.
International campaign began, one million signatures were collected to make Benetton pay up. Then some money flowed in but some brands never paid anything.
But on another level, reforms began, because the event was too shameful even for any brute.
An amendment to the labour code was made requiring employers to insure themselves against disaster liability. But the amount of compensation is also very low and cumbersome to get.
Three agencies – the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, the Alliance and the National Initiative – were formed to fix the disaster hazards in the garment factories.
And imagine what they found? They dug up 88,443 safety hazards and 74,386 of them were fixed. With such compromises we served the world's insatiable appetite for apparels. It took the garment workers about $1 billion to fix the faults.
Safety trainings have been given to workers. Loopholes fixed. And today, our garment industry, or the most part of it, is a beacon of transformation. We have 91 garment factories that got the topmost certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, which is the highest in the world.
The clothing world believes in our capacity and places orders. No further accidents occurred.
But that has not changed the fate of the victims.
The murder charges against the owners of Rana Plaza are still pending with the court, six years down the lane. And so is the fate of the case filed on setting up factories violating building codes.
But today, on the seventh anniversary of that watershed moment, Bangladesh's garment industry is once again battling another adversity: the global coronavirus pandemic.
As the world economy is suffering from record collapse in economic activities, the factories' work orders have all but dried up.
Factories have been laid off, making hundreds of thousands of workers destitute.
For the high-street brands, ensuring the salary of the workers is no more a priority, in this event. They have turned their backs on the people who put clothes on their backs.
A few buyers like H&M and Uniqlo have agreed to pay the salary of workers. But there are brands like guess and New Look who have said they won't pay their bills even if their orders are delivered in perfect condition.
So, it is again a gloomy Rana Plaza day with the workers as the ultimate losers.
And then you may recall:
"Is this what human life is all about?
the dice game of the last priest and the skeleton"
** Acknowledgments: Lyrics from Bee Gees song "New York Mining Disaster 1941" written by Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb
Poetry by Sunil Ganguly "Is this what human life is all about?"