How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (and who is going to do it)

The Post Apocalyptic world on the Bangladeshi shores

William Langewiesche, in his book The Outlaw Sea, after the visit of a breaking yard, wrote this great description:

“Dawn spread across the gargantuan landscape. Alang, in daylight, was barely recognizable as a beach. It was a narrow, smoke-choked industrial zone six miles long, where nearly two hundred ships stood side by side in progressive states of dissection, yawning open to expose their cavernous holds, spilling their black innards onto the tidal flats… Night watchmen were swinging the yard gates open now, revealing the individual plots, each demarcated by little flags or other markers stuck in the sand, and heavily cluttered with cut metal and nautical debris.”

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In 1960, after a severe cyclone, the Greek Ship M D Alpine was stranded on the shores of Sitakunda, Chittagong. This huge steel-floating cathedral remained there for five years.
In 1965, the Chittagong Steel House bought the ship and had it scrapped. It took years, but this was the beginning of an industry, which grew steadily through the ‘80s. A market that today takes place in the Fauzdarhat area, along the 11 miles Sitakunda coastal strip.

Here more than 200’000 Bangladeshis work everyday to dismantle cruise ships, in a post-apocalyptic scenario: huge steel skeletons lay on the shores, lost in smoke, fire and sand.

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Peter Gwin writes:

In one home I meet a family whose four sons worked in the yards. The oldest, Mahabub, 40, spent two weeks as a cutter’s helper before witnessing a man burn to death when his torch sparked a pocket of gas below decks. “I didn’t even collect my pay for fear they wouldn’t let me leave” he says, explaining that bosses often intimidate workers to keep silent about accidents.

He points to a photo in a small glass cabinet. “This is Jahangir, my second oldest brother,” Mahabub says. Jahangir went to work at 15, after their father died. “He was a cutter in the Ziri Subedar yard and was fatally injured there in 2008.” He and his fellow workers had been cutting a large section for three days, but it wouldn’t fall. During a rainstorm they took shelter beneath the piece, and it suddenly gave way.

The third brother, Alamgir, 22, is not home. He had been assisting a cutter when he fell through a hatch on a tanker, plunging about 90 feet into the hold. Miraculously, enough water had seeped into the bottom to break his fall. One of his friends risked his own life to shinny down a rope and pull him out. Alamgir quit the next day. Now he serves tea to the managers in the yard’s office.

The youngest brother, Amir, 18, still works as a cutter’s helper. He is a wiry boy with smooth, unscarred skin and a nervous smile. I ask if he’s scared by his brothers’ experiences. “Yes,” he says, smiling shyly as if unsure what to say next. As we talk, a thunderclap shakes the tin roof. Another boom follows. I look outside, expecting to see the onset of one of Bangladesh’s famously violent monsoons, but the sun is shining. “It’s a large piece falling from a ship,” says the boy. “We hear this every day.”

Chittagong today stinks of smoke, metal and blood. Every week people die on the Bangladeshi shores like animals, to dismantle ships. Perhaps students shocked in high school studying the XIX century work conditions, should know that this never ended, these scenarios just slip out of Europe to make landfall on poorest shores. How many people keep dying everyday, like slaves of an industrial world that crank out products we keep buying?

 

Alessandro Arcangeli

 

  1. The incredible pictures are taken by the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky (Landscape Manifactures)
  2. I also highly recommend the lecture of BLDG BLOG (blog and book), written by Geoff Manaugh.

 

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