ShahidulNews

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Today in Gaza

You who are silent
You who leave it to others
You who do not hear the screams

Every bomb that falls
Every ‘call for restraint’
Every blood clot etched in the sand

Calls out in vain
Calls out in pain
Calls out your name

Remember you let it happen
Remember you turned away
Remember you were silent

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This letter arrived this morning:

Dear Shahidul

This is from my friend Selim, about yesterday’s aggression. As you know I worked on year in Gaza (as the head of the UNRWA health services that provides primary health care to 20,000 refugees daily. So far more than 200 dead and more than 700 wounded, many civilians as there is no “clean” war in urban settings and surgical strikes; The horror is there. And foreign governments recommend restraints on both sides as if it was a solution. Hamas respected the truce for many months and saw no improvement.

Thanks for doing what you can.

Pierre Claquin

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Today in Gaza

It was just before noon when I heard the first explosion. I rushed to my window, barely had I looked out when I was pushed back by the force and air pressure of another explosion. For a few moments I didn’t understand, then I realized that Israeli promises of a wide-scale offensive against the Gaza Strip had materialized. Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzpi Livni’s statements following a meeting with Egyptian President Hussni Mubarak the day before yesterday had not been empty threats after all.

What followed seems pretty much surreal at this point. Never had we imagined anything like this. It all happened so fast but the amount of death and destruction is inconceivable, even to me and I’m in the middle of it and a few hours have passed already passed.
6 locations were hit during the air raid on Gaza city. The images are probably not broadcasted in US news channels. There were piles and piles of bodies in the locations that were hit. As you looked at them you could see that a few of the young men are still alive, someone lifts a hand here, and another raise his head there. They probably died within moments because their bodies are burned, most have lost limbs, some have their guts hanging out and they’re all lying in pools of blood. Outside my home, (which is close to the 2 largest universities in Gaza) a missile fell on a large group of young men, university students, they’d been warned not to stand in groups, it makes them an easy target, but they were waiting for buses to take them home. 7 were killed, 4 students and 3 of our neighbors kids, young men who were from the same family (Rayes) and were best friends. As I’m writing this I can hear a funeral procession go by outside, I looked out the window a moment ago and it was the 3 Rayes boys, They spent all their time together when they were alive, they died together and now their sharing the same funeral together. Nothing could stop my 14 year old brother from rushing out to see the bodies of his friends laying in the street after they were killed. He hasn’t spoken a word since.

What did Olmert mean when he stated that WE the people of Gaza weren’t the enemy, that it was Hamas and the Islamic Jihad who were being targeted? Was that statement made to infuriate us out of out state of shock, to pacify any feelings of rage and revenge? To mock us?? Were the scores of children on their way home from school and who are now among the dead and the injured Hamas militants? A little further down my street about half an hour after the first strike 3 schoolgirls happened to be passing by one of the locations when a missile struck the Preventative Security Headquarters building. The girls bodies were torn into pieces and covered the street from one side to the other.

In all the locations people are going through the dead terrified of recognizing a family member among them. The streets are strewn with their bodies, their arms, legs, feet, some with shoes and some without. The city is in a state of alarm, panic and confusion, cell phones aren’t working, hospitals and morgues are backed up and some of the dead are still lying in the streets with their families gathered around them, kissing their faces, holding on to them. Outside the destroyed buildings old men are kneeling on the floor weeping. Their slim hopes of finding their sons still alive vanished after taking one look at what had become of their office buildings.

And even after the dead are identified, doctors are having a hard time gathering the right body parts in order to hand them over to their families. The hospital hallways look like a slaughterhouse. It’s truly worse than any horror movie you could ever imagine. The floor is filled with blood, the injured are propped up against the walls or laid down on the floor side by side with the dead. Doctors are working frantically and people with injuries that aren’t life threatening are sent home. A relative of mine was injured by a flying piece of glass from her living room window, she had deep cut right down the middle of her face. She was sent home, too many people needed medical attention more urgently. Her husband, a dentist, took her to his clinic and sewed up her face using local anesthesia
200 people dead in today’s air raid. That means 200 funeral processions, a few today, most of them tomorrow probably. To think that yesterday these families were worried about food and heat and electricity. At this point I think they -actually all of us- would gladly have Hamas sign off every last basic right we’ve been calling for the last few months forever if it could have stopped this from ever having happened.

The bombing was very close to my home. Most of my extended family live in the area. My family is ok, but 2 of my uncles’ homes were damaged. We can rest easy, Gazans can mourn tonight. Israel is said to have promised not to wage any more air raids for now. People suspect that the next step will be targeted killings, which will inevitably means scores more of innocent bystanders whose fate has already been sealed.

This doesn’t even begin to tell the story on any level. Just flashes of thing that happened today that are going through my head.

Peace

Selim

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Identity Card, a poem by Mahmoud Darwish

gaza-holocaust-report

gaza-violence-attracting-people-to-citizen

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December 28, 2008 Posted by | Global Issues, World | , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

A Two Day Visa

They sing in harmony. Rhythmic tunes with simple lyrics. The lilting songs and the dance-like-footsteps have a deceptive beauty. The metal sheets balanced on their shoulders may weigh tons. Bare feet on slippery clay weaving through scrap metal, is dangerous at the best of times. In pouring rain, and with the loads they carry, the smallest slip could spell disaster. They gently sway in careful steps singing to stay in synchrony. It is a song of death.

Online Norwegian version in Dagbladet

shipbreaking-magazinet1PDF in Norwegian Magasinet

dagbladet-nyhetPDF in Norwegian Nyhet

“You wouldn’t have the time” he’d said. It was a polite conversation. Salahuddin, the cousin of Jahangir Alam, had rung me to thank me for helping him get an ambulance at the Apollo Hospital in the elite Bashundhara Complex in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, 250 kilometres from the port city Chittagong. Despite the hospital’s motto of “Bringing healthcare of international standard within the reach of every individual,” it was understood that all patients were not equal. Jahangir and his family had been waiting for over five hours. The hospital was for rich people and Jahangir, a worker at Ziri Subeder Shipbreaking Yard was undeniably poor. Even though the money had been paid, Jahangir, on his deathbed was not going to get the same treatment the other VIP patients at Apollo were given. Eventually the presence of a pesky journalist taking pictures had enough nuisance value for the hospital to dredge up an ambulance. Jahangir would arrive at a cheaper, less equipped hospital in Chittagong, in the early hours of the morning. Knowing I was interested in the plight of the workers, Salahuddin had rung to tell me there had been another accident. A worker was in hospital and they were going to amputate his leg. He felt my presence might save the man’s leg. I was due to go to London the following day, for a brainstorming meeting with Amnesty International. Going to and from Chittagong that day would have been difficult. I had things to do before leaving. Salahuddin was right. Even though I knew that my presence might perhaps have made a difference to a man’s life. I didn’t have the time. We never have the time. Not for some people.

The working conditions at the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong are well known. It is the usual story. In order to get the ships, the Bangladeshi shipbreakers pay the best rates to the ship-owners. To retain their profits, they pay the workers the lowest rates in the world, and provide virtually no safety. Workers die and suffer injuries on a regular basis. Some receive modest compensation, others don’t. According to workers, many deaths are simply not registered with the bodies being ‘disappeared’ by the owners.

I had wanted to do a story on the shipbreaking yards for some time. When Halldor Hustadnes of the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet approached me I was immediately interested. I rescheduled a short assignment in Manila so that we could work together for the entire period. A loophole in the Basle Convention was allowing ship-owners to continue dumping ships with toxic waste with abandon in majority world countries that had little regulation.

The new International Maritime Organisation, convention was about to be ratified, but environmentalists felt it would not result in better conditions for workers. Norwegian ship-owners, who benefitted the most from loopholes in the convention (like the ships not being declared waste, and therefore not falling under waste jurisdiction), were a powerful lobby. Even Lloyds the insurers, who register and control the world’s shipping, felt the new convention would not have an effect.

We were hoping our story, timed to appear before the ratification of the convention, would bring attention to the plight of the workers. Getting access to the yard was going to be the main stumbling block. My student Sourav Das, put me in touch with Wahid Adnan. Adnan had good links with Rahman yard. We had been told that the Norwegian ship UMA was berthed at Rahmania yard. The slightly different name might just have been due to a mistake in communication. There was a ship UMA near Rahman yard. This was a breakthrough. Adnan managed to get me in, but though it was the right ship, it was the wrong yard. UMA was going to be broken at Royal, the yard next to Rahman, where we had no access.

The unique continental shelf near Chittagong allow ships to be brought right up to the beach. UMA at Royal Shipyard.

The unique continental shelf near Chittagong allow ships to be brought right up to the beach. The Norwegian ship UMA at Royal Shipyard. 8th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

So we started with the access we had, and worked our way across the porous beach. It was a Friday. The weekend in Bangladesh. We utilised the absence of the manager to bluff our way into the ship. The abundance of asbestos, the open chemical store, the sacks of Potassium Hydroxide pellets and other toxic chemicals left unprotected, were all fairly visible. One of the workers talked of the films they had been shown about how asbestos was toxic, and had to be buried under concrete and that workers needed to wear protective clothing. “But that was just a film” he said.

Young men work on the ship handling asbestos and other toxic chemicals.

Young men work on the ship handling asbestos and other toxic chemicals. 8th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Shujon and co-workers wading through toxic waste as they pull ship parts into the yard. 8th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Shujon and co-workers walking through toxic waste as they pull ship parts into the yard. 9th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Shujon was the smallest of the workers. With marigolds dangling from his ears, he insisted on being photographed. He behaved like a child, though we found out he was older than he looked. Only wealthy Bangladeshis have birth records. And with most children being malnourished, looks can be deceptive. Shujon was a helper. Hirolal, the cutter he was helping, didn’t look much older than him. They were cousins. Shielding his eyes from the intense heat with his hands, Hirolal, broke down larger pieces of metal into more manageable shapes. Shujon cleared the debris, oblivious to the sparks that flew around him. Both boys wanted to find work overseas. Singapore was their dream destination. I didn’t tell them that Bangladeshi workers in Singapore, often found themselves in similar bonded labour. At least Shujon and Hirolal had a dream. The contractor came over and started beating up Shujon. He needed to get on with his work. We were getting him into trouble and kept our distance.

An angry contractor beat up Shujon and warns him against talking to us.

An angry contractor beats up Shujon and warns him against talking to us. 9th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Welding goes on into the night. Often welders do not have protective glasses which are expensive and they have to pay for.

Welding goes on into the night. Often welders do not have protective glasses which are expensive and not supplied by the yard. 9th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Ship propellors are made of expensive metal and require special cutting skills and very high heat.

Ship propellors are made of expensive metal and require special cutting skills and very high heat. 9th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Early in the morning Rubel (14) begins ferrying workers from the beach to the ships being stripped. He has been doing this job for three years.

Early in the morning Rubel (14) begins ferrying workers from the beach to the ships being stripped. He has been doing this job for three years. 10th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Early the following morning I saw Rubel, bailing out the water from a lifeboat. Rubel was 14 and had been a ferry ‘man’ since he was 11. His mother didn’t really want him to be doing risky work, but they needed the money. We left before sunrise, before the manager arrived. Rubel was well into his day’s work.

That night when the manager had left, we went back into the yard and slept with the workers. We were guests and had the luxury of having a metal sheet to ourselves for a bed. They sung for us that night. Not the pop songs that we heard on television, or the Tagore songs that the wealthy elite took as a sign of culture. They were haunting songs of longing and parting. One was a song about visas:

With a two day visa
To this false world
Why did Alla send me
Why send me here

With the pain of seeking comfort
He sent me on my own
What game did he play
What game does he play

Using metal sheets for beds, workers sleep in crowded huts with no toilets.

Using metal sheets for beds, workers sleep in crowded huts with no toilets. 11th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

With an empty water bottle and a wooden box as a drum, we sang into the night. Their raw voices blending with the steady rain on the tin roof. “We are poor folk. There’s work tomorrow. We need to sleep.” The foreman said abruptly. We knew the songs had been sung for the entertainment of the guests, at the cost of much needed rest. I walked out into the rain. The tide was coming in. UMA was glistening in the yard searchlight. The guards in their yellow raincoats stood out in the darkness.

UMA, a ship formerly owned by the Norwegian company Odfjell, is beached at Royal Ship Yard in Chittagong.
UMA, a ship formerly owned by the Norwegian company Odfjell, is beached at Royal Ship Yard in Chittagong. 10th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagblade
Rubel's mother does not like her son doing such dangerous work, but accepts that the family has no choice.

Rubel's mother does not like her son doing such dangerous work, but accepts that the family has no choice. 11th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Beaching master Captain Inam by the Norwegian ship New Berge at Habib Ship Yard, which was beached by him.

Beaching master Captain Inam by the Norwegian ship New Berge at Habib Ship Yard, which was beached by him. 11th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Captain Inam was a boisterous jovial man. He was the most experienced beach captain, and the de-facto spokesperson for the shipyard owners. He was much in demand. When we wanted to speak to the owners, they insisted that the good captain be around. The owners spoke little, leaving it up to the articulate seaman to fend our questions. They invited us over to Bonanza, a posh restaurant in downtown Chittagong. One of the many businesses owned by Mr. Amin, in whose yard two other Norwegian ships, the Gold Berge and New Berge were also being stripped. Captain Inam explained how the ship-owners who made the bulk of the profit took no responsibility for the situation of the workers. How they should allocate a percentage of their profits to building a modern shipyard in Chittagong. How these environmentalists were in collusion with the Northern ship-owners and working towards increasing their profits. Of how the shipyard owners really felt for the workers. Of how they provided helmets, and gloves and shoes to all workers, but that workers didn’t want to wear them. None of this matched with what the workers had to say. “A pair of shoes cost us 500 Taka” they said. That was four days’ wages for the average worker. Odfjell the Norwegian owner of UMA had made 7.5 million dollars from the sale of the dying ship.

The foreman cutter of Royal Ship Yard in his home. He claims attempts to set up a union have been brutally quelled by the shipyard owners.

The foreman cutter of Royal Ship Yard in his home. He claims attempts to set up a union have been brutally quelled by the shipyard owners. 11th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

The foreman cutter talked of how he had escaped death but the person next to him had died due to poisoned gas in the hull of a ship. He took us to his one room house where the parents and the two children shared a bed that almost occupied the entire room. He talked of the four times they had tried to set up a union. Each time the local goons were used to beat them into submission. The main organisers were tortured and lost their jobs. Captain Inam, has a different version. “There are no restrictions to forming unions.” He says. “The workers are simple people and don’t think in those terms.”

Security officers and contractors at Royal Shipping Yard.

Security officers and contractors at Royal Shipping Yard. 12th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

The number of injuries have gone down enormously says the captain. Now there are hardly one or two a year. They take us to the hospital they are building, to reduce medical fees paid to external hospitals. We never went into the logic of requiring to build a hospital to reduce costs if only one or two deaths and a few injuries were taking place all year.

One of the workers Saiful takes us to a nearby village. Walking a few hundred metres, we come across several families of injured workers. A few say they have received modest compensation. Some say they’ve received nothing. Even though these injuries were from a few years ago, the frequency of injuries has little in common with the captain’s figures.

Shahin, an NGO worker who has been campaigning for the rights of shipyard workers, rings us to tell us of an accident that has just taken place. We rush over to Chittagong Medical Hospital (CMH). As all other public hospitals in Bangladesh, CMH is overrun. The three workers were carried up the five flights of stairs and lay on the hospital floor. There were no spare beds. Jahangir was the most badly injured. His head was bleeding, and he couldn’t move. He was barely conscious. The other two workers had broken limbs but would survive. There were no stretchers and Jahangir’s family and friends, took him across to a less busy part of the hospital floor, carrying him on a stretched sheet.

Jahangir Alam being moved to a quieter part of Ward 28 in Chittagong Medical Hospital. They use a stretched sheet as there are no stretchers available.

Jahangir Alam being moved to a quieter part of Ward 28 in Chittagong Medical Hospital. They use a stretched sheet as there are no stretchers available. 12th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Critically injured worker Jahangir Alam lying on the floor of Chittagong Medical Hospital Ward 28.

Critically injured worker Jahangir Alam lying on the floor of Chittagong Medical Hospital Ward 28. 12th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

We contact Al Hajj Lokman Hakim, the owner of Ziri Subedar Yard. Mr. Hakim is angry. “They have accidents because of their own stupidity. Sometimes they have minor injuries, and we have to pay for it. If these foreigners care so much about our workers why don’t they build a new dock for us?” Cursing everyone in sight as we go down the lift of his highrise building, the Lokman Tower, Mr. Hakim drives off in his shiny car. A 5.5 million Taka car according to our driver.

Lokman Tower, the office of Al Hajj Lokman Hakim, the owner of Ziri Subedar, the shipyard where Jahangir Alam was injured. The cart being pulled in the foreground carries steel rods used for construction, which are made from scrap metal obtained from ships.

Lokman Tower, the office of Al Hajj Lokman Hakim, the owner of Ziri Subedar, the shipyard where Jahangir Alam was injured. The cart being pulled in the foreground carries steel rods used for construction, which are made from scrap metal obtained from ships. 14th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Al Hajj Lokman Hakim's house in Chittagong. He is angry that we have arrived and does not want to answer questions.

Al Hajj Lokman Hakim in his house in Chittagong. He is angry that we have arrived and does not want to answer questions. 14th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

The news was more than Jahangir’s mother Nurjahan could take. Her eldest son had an accident a year ago. Two months ago her husband had died. Two weeks later, Alamgir, Jahangir’s younger brother had been injured while working in a different yard. The yard owner had paid for Alamgir’s treatment, but there was no knowing if he would ever be able to work again, or how long the owner would keep paying for the treatment. Jahangir had been the only earning member of the family. As it was, the family depended upon the generosity of the neighbours for their survival. Jahangir’s injury had left the family in tatters. “It is poverty that has driven my sons to this life,” says Nurjahan. “If my Jahangir returns, I will never send him to the yard again.”

Jahangir's mother Nurjahan and his younger brother Alamgir.

Jahangir's mother Nurjahan and his younger brother Alamgir, in their home. 15th August 2008. Chittagong. Bangladesh © Shahidul Alam/Drik/MW/Dagbladet

Jahangir never returned. On the night of the 6th September, Jahangir had spoken. He seemed to be on the verge of recovery. He would never walk again, but at least he would live. The following morning Shahjahan heard he had died. Shahjahan knew that the company had been concerned about the rising medical bills, and wondered if Jahangir’s death had been necessary to keep the bills down. One thing was certain. His two day visa had expired.

The ship owners in Norway, will never know he lived.

September 12, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh, Photojournalism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments