Few know it, but I cut my teeth on international work four decades ago in Bangladesh. It was a sobering and humbling experience. A terrible war, hunger, excessive flooding due to a furious monsoon season, and the ongoing animosities between West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) made for a toxic brew for the young man I was. Neither prepared for it nor capable of the level of performance required to truly help a beleaguered people, I nevertheless came to understand that they were devastated when I left – along with me went the hope that the rest of the world had been watching.
Deep stirring and remembrances poured through me in these last few days at the thought of the brutal fire and the eventual collapse of that garment factory in Dkaka that took the lives of some remarkable and beleaguered women and has generated an equivalent firestorm of criticism from international observers targeted at the building owners, the laxity of laws, the lack of governmental will, and even the failure of Western pressure to make the kind of modifications required that could have prevented the tragedy. Nevertheless, at the centre of it all stands the building owner and the officials and politicians who permitted him to manipulate their purposes to get what he wanted – which wasn’t the safety of the workers.
In these next few months there will be some heavy soul-searching going on. As Amit Chakma, president of Western University, said recently in a Globe and Mail editorial, something ultimately has to be done about corruption and the application of the rule of law. And he’s right – the root cause lies in these two issues.
But we must also remember that the women of Bangladesh have gone through a remarkable transformation in recent years. Despite brutal conditions, women have become empowered by earning wages and taking more leadership in their communities. The centre of this entire story is that it is really a tale of the remarkable empowerment of women in a country that long denied them such possibilities. Whatever reforms come from this devastating tragedy, if women aren’t the key focus of the outcomes then the transition required by Bangladesh to move into an era of prosperity and rights will amount to little.
Yet in the middle of all this debate, acrimony, legal wranglings, and perhaps even violence, lies to the devastating stories of the victims. Look at the picture above and think of what the last few breaths of these individuals must have been like. This is humanity at its absolute essence. Facing certain death, they clung to one another and were discovered later in the rubble. It brought me to tears, repeatedly, and it brought back that awful things I saw in that country all those years ago. No one seeing this photo can say they aren’t in awe of it, its tragedy its deeply moving pathos.
But that’s just the problem: people like us who are capable of such emotions can just as quickly lose their impact as we move on with our lives. To change the welfare and future of women in countries like Bangladesh is going to take a different kind of “us” engaging in that process. This isn’t Survivor or The Walking Dead. These two labourers, simply working to put food on the table and the kids through school, paid the ultimate price for living in an environment where owners, public servants and politicians alike never put them first.
The moving photo was taken by Bangladeshi photographer Taslima Akhter. He and his associates have been struggling to find out the names of the two subjects and their relationship to one another – to no avail as of yet. But in essence we know them because they are just like us, only caught in a cycle of limited possibilities. We look at their image in deep passion because we picture ourselves in those last few seconds. What would it be like for us, or if it was our children? This is humanity at its deepest and most profound, and we know it. And we pray that when our final moment comes that it will be nothing like this picture. Fortunately we live in a country, with it codes, laws, community activism and open media, that mitigate against such things occurring often. But is it right that we have such blessings? Of course it is. What’s wrong is that these workers didn’t have access to such essentials for themselves. And unless we step up and pressure for such changes, even half a world away, then they must make what they can of their own situation and the mighty forces of power and corruption against them.
Author Jay Asher wrote in his, Thirteen Reasons Why, that, “a lot of us care, just not enough.” That is the moral of this picture, and as a moral people we cannot just remain as observers. Let’s look at this picture long enough until a fire is lit in our own hearts that will not be extinguished until the struggling men and women of this world enjoy the blessings we sadly take for granted. By treating morality as an option, we leave the rest of the world at risk. Misery doesn’t deserve such company.