Then the Sky Crashed Down Upon Us

by Annalisa Natali Murri

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POST TRAUMATIC stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious, potentially debilitating condition that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a natural disaster or major accident. Most people who experience such events will recover, but people with PTSD can continue to live with severe mental injury for months or years following the incident. This project aims to depict the heavy psychological pain and distress suffered by survivors of 2013’s Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh—a disaster which claimed 1,129 lives and left over 2,500 injured survivors.

There are still many victims whose bodies were never found. At the Rana Plaza disaster site people continued digging with bare hands—even after a year has passed—to find forgotten traces among the ruins. There are dozens of people, mostly relatives of the victims, who honor the memory of their loved ones daily by wandering around the remains of the building.

The idea behind the project was to draw out the invisible, psychological aftermath of Rana Plaza by focusing on the people’s struggle to conduct a normal life after the tragedy. I knew I wanted to bring it to a different level than that of pure reality—to lead viewers to something hidden and less immediate—but to do so I would have to re-create in my images some sense of the internal trauma that these people are still living with. The pictures were created by shooting double exposure portraits of survivors, victims’ relatives, and first responders, then merging the frames into a layered depiction of person and place. I wanted to give shape to each subject’s fears and memories by projecting their interior chaos and disorientation onto the landscape.

What guided me in this documentary work was the desire to give voice to those who may be considered the silent victims of the Rana Plaza tragedy. Many attempts have been made to bring aid to the survivors, with government and NGO’s providing monetary compensation and medical support to those who were physically injured. But those benefits should not be limited to victims who suffered physical harm alone: one year after the tragedy, about 50% of survivors are now afflicted with intangible and invisible wounds. Many people continue to suffer panic attacks, memory loss, and even hallucinations. Trauma and mental disorder is a natural response to a disaster like this, but some survivors are plagued by the sound of voices asking for help, or visions of their dead coworkers lying beside them. The intrusion of the past into the present is one of the main problems confronting trauma survivors. If not properly addressed and resolved, this persistence of lived trauma can evoke suicidal tendencies.

This project aims to highlight the need and importance of adequate psychological rehabilitation for everyone affected by tragedy. It is important that survivors recover completely, and return to living a normal life. I hope that this work will help raise awareness of the psychological aftermath of disaster, and aid global and local communities in acknowledging the widespread affliction of PTSD. This is of fundamental importance, especially in areas where recognition of mental distress and acceptance of treatment are stigmatized by superstition or tradition.

A man with his daughters wandering through the ruins of Rana Plaza.

Mr. Rahat and Yasmin Akhtar are husband and wife. Both worked as sewing operators on the fifth and fourth floors of Rana Plaza, respectively. The day of the collapse is still stuck in their memories. "Everything was vibrating. It was like a sudden earthquake, there was dust and smoke everywhere", says Mr. Rahat, who saved himself by jumping from the building while it was collapsing. His physical injuries are healing, but the accident left a strong impact on his mental state.

A young boy struggles to rebuild his life after he lost an arm in the collapse.

Aklima (28), a surviving victim, was hit by a severe case of post-traumatic syndrome. She talks about the enormous difficulty of resuming a normal life while suffering heavy psychological consequences. She is worried that what happened to her could also affect her children’s well-being, and this only makes her more afraid.

Aklima is mother to three children, one of which is only a few months old. She was working on the seventh floor of Rana Plaza on the day of the collapse, but she cannot remember anything. Her mind erased most of what she experienced during the collapse, and she's still suffering severe mental problems as a result. She confesses that many times she feels lost and bewildered, as if her senses are no longer connected with reality.

Arati Bala Das was extracted from the Rana building after spending three days under a concrete pillar. "It was dark all around, I couldn't even breathe. I thought I would not be able to return alive". The rescue workers managed to save her, but they had to amputate her leg. From that moment Arati's life underwent a drastic change. She received some financial compensation from the government, which paid for her artificial limb, but it doesn't seem to relieve her pain.

Massud Rana, 27, during a one-on-one talk with an NGO volunteer. He's trying to get rid of his persistent fear of indoor spaces and multi-story buildings.

Jamila Begum lost her daughter, Shayla, in the collapse. She remembers Shayla did not take any lunch that day. "I told her, please take your lunch, but she replied not to worry. She told me she needed just to go and take her salary, then she would have returned home”. Jamila never saw her again. Since then she has suffered severe psychological pain and depression. Every day she wanders around in bewilderment, always ending up at Rana Plaza ground zero where Sheyla’s body is still resting.

Sheuly (26), after working several years as a housewife, is now employed at GK Garments, a clothing factory located very close to Rana Plaza in the Savar district. She had to look for a job after she lost her husband, who was working at Rana Plaza when it fell. She had been looking for him for days after the collapse when one night—she remembers tearfully—she dreamt about him calling her name. Her heart finally broke when they found his body, lifeless after 17 days under the rubble.


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