‘The DNA test we gave…’, he asks hesitating between words, ‘When do you think the results will come back?’ Shamsul Islam, poor day laborer living in the heart of the infamous Machar Colony – a squalid, makeshift slum on the outskirts of the city port, has been searching for the remains of his son for over a month. His meagre earnings, most of which came from his Shafiqul Islam who had died in the fire, were being quickly spent on rickshaws, buses and taxis as he went from hospital to morgue, to police station to charity offices, all in the hope of learning something about his son’s remains, and whatever little compensation he could claim.
Walking to his house through the garbage strewn, sewage washed streets of Machar Colony, I was struck by how little the place had change from when I had last seen it which was nearly twelve years ago. It had of course expanded, as more and more people fleeing a barren rural landscape, militancy and general lack of employment in the smaller towns drifted towards Karachi. Now, making my way through the streets, past mud and brick homes with their burlap cloth doorways, dodging pot-holes and piles of animal excrement, brushing past children – barefoot, tattered and stained clothing, weather worn faces, dust laced skin, under nourished, diseased skin, playing cricket and other street games, giving way to street vendors selling vegetables or some strange colored drinks, donkeys – emaciated, bruised, pulling loads far beyond their strengths, I look at what can only be described as a mass of discarded humanity struggling to hold on to a modicum of ordinary life and find a way to stay civilized in it. Here, life is a day-to-day struggle, and I understood Shamul Islam’s desperation – it was not just about the need to give his son a proper burial, and close a painful moment in his life, but it was also about the compensation that was being withheld until he could confirm his son’s death. The seemingly callous calculation was an absolutely necessary one in a world where the earning of each child, of each family member, made the difference between hunger and homelessness. Life itself was this calculation.
Shamul Islam’s question was a common one. Many of the families that I had met in the past two weeks had not found the remains of this killed family members. Many suspected that some families that either intentionally claimed bodies that were not of their kin, or that others had mistakenly identified them and buried them. The chaos, and disorganization at the hospital morgues made both scenarios likely. There had been no way organized way to find and record the dead. By the time the government began insisting on DNA testing to confirm the claims, it was already perhaps too late.
But the promise of a high-tech procedure such as a DNA confirmation had only bought further misery and anxiety to the families who had chosen to take part. It had also done something more insidious: it had allowed the factory owners and management to not give a list of employees and contractors. The burden of proof was left to the most vulnerable, most traumatized and least qualified to deal with such advanced procedures. Many were confused about the procedure, the time lines, or even the implications of the tests. It had also meant more expenses traveling to the test centers and back, and then having to repeatedly return to ask about the results. The families were still waiting to hear about the DNA results nearly two months since the tests. The authorities pretended that this approach will bring a modicum of procedure, and scientific precision to the aftermath. Instead what they had done was lay another layer of confusion and imprecision to an already chaotic aftermath. There was no real roster of the dead, no complete list of names against which the DNA testing could be matched, no confirmation of the samples provided, no checking of the claimants, and certainly no record of the bodies that had already been taken and buried. As a result, there were far more outstanding tests than bodies.
‘People are saying,’ Shamsul Islam continues, ‘that people just took corpses so that they could claim the compensation.’. I too had heard this rumour repeated many times in the last few days. Perhaps it was a result of the confusion and helplessness people were feeling – there was no communication from the authorities, or from anyone in the provincial or federal administration. People were starting to draw their own conclusions, if for no other reason than to have a sense of closure.
But the testing process had also dispossessed those not directly related to the deceased. And women and non-relative dependents in the household had been particularly hard hit and discriminated against. Since they conducted the tests through the blood of the male line, brothers and fathers of the dead were turning up and disappearing with the compensation, abandoning the wives and children. Others, enticed by the compensation funds, tried to severe ties with the wives and the children, abandoning them to their fate, and claiming the funds for their own families. This had happened to the homes of at least three women that I had met: Rashida Bibi, Rosina Rehmat Ali and Nasreen Imran. The women were cut off and abandoned. The DNA test had become a measure of reality, a convenience documentary fop that distracted from the failure of the factory owners, and the authorities to demand a proper accounting of the workers, and those killed.
‘My only consolation is to give him a proper burial’, I hear Shamsul Islam say to me. His voice, his demeanor is very composed, and has remained so throughout our conversation. ‘With my own hands, I want to sprinkle the earth on him.’ We are not alone as we talk about his son’s missing body. Shafiqul Islam’s mother, his wife, his young son and some friends are all sitting along the walls of the narrow foyer to the house. Further down I can see three doors that lead to the bedrooms, and the kitchen. Shafiqul Islam’s wife rare looks at me, but she sits quietly on the floor, her face fully covered as she observes iddat, gently rocking her small baby. I try to speak to her, to ask her about if she and her husband had plans for the future, some hopes.
‘There were many hopes…’ She speaks in a low voice that drifts off into silence. Her face turns away from me and she is no longer with us.
We sit in silence for a while. I can hear children playing outside on the streets. Vendors go by in regular intervals – onions, home cleaning brushes, knife sharpening services, children’s sweets. I want to hear more about Shafiqul Islam, I want to know something about him as a person, as a man who supported this household. I am afraid to ask because I feel that they do not want to talk about him, but I do so anyways. And his mother finally speaks.
‘Where did he go?’ I hear her say. Her voice breaks from her tears. ‘My son, where did he go? I had asked him to leave this work, but he would not listen to me.’ She is looking at me with eyes in which I had expected to find sorrow but see anger. ‘He said that it was good to stay at one firm, as this helps one grow in it, and do well.’ She sits on the floor – there are no chairs in the house and the corridor, which also acts as a living room, has low stools set along the wall. Her face presses further into her knees, the dupatta across her mouth. Her muffled voice is difficult to discern. ‘I still cannot believe what has happened.’ She presses herself further into her knees, as if she is trying to prevent her mouth from moving. I try to prompt her to continue, but she refuses to.
Her friend, sitting across from her leans over and puts her arms around her, and turns to me ‘He was a good son. A caring son. Just ask anyone in the area, he was a hard-working man.’ I can hear her weeping now. For the last forty minutes that I have been with the family she had been a stoic, aloof presence, looking at me occasionally but hardly saying anything. Her friends hold her closer, and whispers something in her eyes. They lean against each other.