The Ship Graveyards of Chittagong
We flew from Shanghai to Bangkok then on to Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city. The airport was alarmingly small and shabby for a city of nearly seven million. I wondered if we were in the right place. Armed military were ever-present and customs barely moved, in step with the sweltering heat and humidity. Muslim women listlessly swept the floor, without any direction or pattern.
Our host (I’ll call him Ali) met us once we cleared immigration and his driver whisked us away through the oppressive heat into an air-conditioned Land Cruiser to a nearby hotel to kill an hour or two before the Chittagong flight. Entering the Radisson, we were stopped by guards who checked for bombs under the Toyota with a mirror at the end of a long handle. Later, our 45 minute flight carried us the few hundred miles and five centuries back to Chittagong.
Bangladesh is poor. The 2008 GDP per person was $US 1,500 a year. By comparison, India was $2,800 last year, China $6,000 and the US $47,000 (1). Its population of 162 million, more than half that the US, live in an area roughly the size of Wisconsin. (2)
Ali is Bangladesh-born to a highly-placed military family and roughly my age. He reaped the rewards of his birth and took his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Columbia. He went on to found and IPO several high tech companies in California, holds a fistful of patents, and is retired, living as a US citizen in Silicon Valley in a home you can read about online. Ali went on to earn two Master’s degrees at Berkeley, one an MBA and the other a degree in Financial Engineering, which has given him access to some of the top financial minds in the world. He smiled when I told him he must be one of the few guys who could explain the recent financial unpleasantness.
Nonetheless Ali returns to Bangladesh several times a year for a week or more where he owns a business that employs several thousand workers in Chittagong and to see his family. He claims he is not altruistic about Bangladesh and is only doing business here “because it is a good investment.” Seeing this place I decide I do not believe him.
Ali was kind, thoughtful and very open to my continuous questions, supplying me with facts and history and insight into the local Bengali and Muslim culture, languages, food, politics, religion, drugs, western influence and development. Occasionally he shared things that “I may not be wise to tell you this, however…”
When I asked him about Al Qaeda, he said a military acquaintance had “taken off his uniform” recently, and infiltrated an Al Qaeda cell that had been set up by the CIA. How did he know this exactly? Why is CIA setting up Al Qaeda cells? Ali said with a chuckle that when they arrest someone for terrorism or other serious crimes in Bangladesh there is no trial. All suspects are shot trying to escape.
We agreed Ali is CIA.
About the special-forces-looking police officers in black uniforms, he said, “You do not want to run into these guys. Do not look them in the eyes.” We passed them several times, four or five in a tiny pickup truck with automatic weapons and US-SWAT-type shades.
One evening, Ali, Hakim, Jerome, Henry and I were driving in the countryside at dusk before dinner. Darkness obscured the landscape as we wound through farmland and forest, past pedestrians with bundles of firewood on their heads, bicycles, golf cart taxis and rickshaws narrowly escaping our vehicle as we sped along the rutted roads. Ali and Hakim were taking us to “the club” for a drink, a British colonial era retreat for officers and bureaucrats of The Empire where they know how to mix a proper gin and bitters. We approached a military training center in the dark and were stopped and questioned at a guard station with one dim light blub hanging by its cord. Ali went in with the armed solider. Another man came out, wearing a red beret, indicating superior rank. They spoke for 20 minutes. When Ali returned to the car he said he had to “play the family card” and that otherwise we might have been detained much longer. He holds a US passport these days.
Every day we had a driver to negotiate the wild Chittagong traffic. Roads are poorly paved, if at all, and clogged with taxis, rickshaws, foot traffic, cows (the white ones “wander over” from India, the brown ones, local), dogs, garbage and human waste. Every taxi, rickshaw and truck is hand-painted in wild, day-glow colors. The over-arching traffic rule seems to be the same as in our game of “chicken”: If I go and you back down, I have the right-of-way. Picture this occurring a thousand times a minute everywhere in the city, at once. People loosely adhere to the English left-side–of-the-road scheme. I marvel that there are not dozens of accidents by the minute and that no one fights. Bangladeshi driving involves four controls: The steering wheel, the accelerator, the brake and the horn, and all are used in equal measure.
The air is brown, and there is dirt and dust on everything. People bath in filthy lakes and ponds and rivers and relieve themselves on the sides of the city streets. Animals of all sorts mingle. Open sewers flow past shops selling Samsung flat screen TV’s and Motorola mobile phones. Despite this, the scene is a kaleidoscope of fully-saturated color. Men’s and women’s clothing alike is spotlessly clean and pressed.
Everyone I encounter in this predominantly Muslim country has a dignity and presence I rarely notice at home. People meet my gaze without looking away, without challenge or posture. In this place where drugs and alcohol are officially illegal, I think about being present. As much as slipping away into fantasy would seem a rational response to these conditions, I see acceptance and reception in these people. “Non-judgmental awareness” as Roshi would say, is easy in Boulder. Here it pushes all my buttons. “Leave nothing out. Yes, and that too.”
I wonder about them and about us in the West. How am I to feel about this chasm of material wealth? What can anyone do? How can anyone do nothing? How can I look at it? How can I look away? Who is truly happy?
And are we helping anyone by employing a thousand sewers and testers and assemblers, making ten-by-fourteen, three room cabin tents for Americans to look at on the shelf at Walmart and decide that $79.99 is more than they want to pay or to buy on their VISA card and use this Memorial Day, and maybe again on the Fourth of July and then it goes on the shelf in the garage or basement? Who am I to decide it’s not the best course of action? When getting by is success, who cares?
I’m left without answers.
Our final afternoon we had an additional passenger, a large man with a mustache, our bodyguard, who is a childhood friend of Ali’s and whose sister is the Minister of Interior. The guys in the black uniforms work for her.
Ali and the bodyguard and our driver took us to the ship breaking yards. All over town you can see this industry at work: specialized businesses hawking one type of salvage or another, pieces of steel, wood, chairs, poles, electrical parts etc.
Apparently the bodyguard was a good idea: We drove off the main road into a dense neighborhood past chickens and cows and goats up to a fourteen-foot rusting iron gate. Our guide banged the door and a young kid with a knife opened. They spoke and we were let in to a wild Dante-like scene of hundreds of young boys and men crawling over ship parts, some with acetylene torches cutting larger scraps into smaller ones, kids dragging jagged steel over the sand, most barefoot and gloveless. Several dozen mammoth ships were beached on the sand four hundred yards away toward the water. This yard was one of a dozen or more, stretched along miles of beach mudflats. The air was humid and thick with a lousy toxic smell. I felt like I was standing at the gate to hell, watching human piranha scour every bit of industrial meat off the bones of these enormous fish.
About these ship graveyards, the BBC says:
Over 90% of the world’s annual crop of around 700 condemned ships now end their lives on the beaches of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Thousands of labourers are employed to take the vessels apart by hand for scrap metal. But many of them are working in dangerous conditions and environmental groups claim that the whole process causes too much pollution.
In the ship-breakers yard on Potenga beach in the southern Bangladesh port of Chittagong, nearly 20 vessels stand side-by-side in various stages of dissection, yawning to expose their cavernous holds, spilling pollution onto the tidal flats.
The workers are exposed to numerous risks: falls, fires, explosions and contact with various kinds of toxic chemicals.
“We know that it’s a dirty business,” explains Mohamed Mohsin, managing director of one of Chittagong’s largest ship-breaking companies, “but its work that has to be done, and no-one else in the world seems able to do it as competitively as us.
“All too often the ships which my workers break contain toxic substances which harm my men,” he told the BBC.
“But if the ships aren’t broken we don’t get paid, so we have to do it.”
Around 1500 workers in Mr. Mohsin’s Chittagong yard earn roughly $2 a day to tear apart the steel carcasses of condemned vessels.
Most workers do not wear protective clothing.
Many do not even possess gloves to stop their hands being cut by the huge lengths of sheet metal which are sent to scrap yards.
Like other ship-breaking yards in South Asia, what little technology that exists is often rudimentary and unsafe.
There are reports of cable winches snapping and unexpected explosions.
Everything in the Chittagong yards is done by hard labour and sweat.
The Bangladesh ship-breakers may be one of the lowest paid labour forces in the world, but the men say that they are willing to brave the dangerous conditions.
“It’s tough here,” says 15-year-old Abdul Fazim. “We are not allowed to join a union and the hours are long.
“But it provides us with an income when otherwise we would all probably be without work.”
Every part of the ship is recycled right down to the ship’s brass bell and other memorabilia is for sale.
The ship’s steel plating is made into low grade iron reinforcing rods which are used by Bangladesh’s building trade.
“We simply cannot afford to improve safety and stop pollution until we receive more investment, and that has to come from richer Western countries,” he says.
And it is money that is at the root of the problem.
The livelihoods of thousands of people depends on ship-breaking, a job too dirty and too costly for the developed world.
It may be work that is underpaid and dangerous, but it remains the most cost-efficient way of disposing of the world’s growing number of unwanted ships.
We were watched as we walked through the scrap and cables and mud and pools of oil and chemicals glistening rainbow-like in the dirty sunlight. We were told not to take pictures as the government denies the safety issues raised by its own agencies and international NGO’s. Nonetheless Jerome’s phone camera clicked away.
Ali, Jerome and I walked a few hundred yards out onto the low tide mud toward the Bay of Bengal. We spotted a one-inch diameter snake, banded with white and black, looping out of one mud hole into another, then realized we were surrounded by thousands of similar holes. Jerome, Jamaican-born and regularly mistaken in Asia for an American sports hero, fit, handsome and intimidating, nonetheless decided snakes were not part of this tour and we booked a hasty retreat.
After leaving the yards, we stopped at a small shop crammed in amongst hundreds of little stands selling cigarettes, food, and unknown commodities alongside the busy coastal road. This place was stuffed with nautical trinkets and antiques of every description, likely the “good stuff” off these old ships. In one of our coastal sailing towns, these would fetch Newport or Puget Sound prices and find homes on coffee tables in luxury condos alongside Travel and Leisure or Cruising World magazines. Here, dogs wandered in the mud out front. Three black kids wearing only shorts watched us and lingered. I taught them to slap five and they giggled. Motorcycles loaded with scrap metal and large cylinders and rolls of cable sped by on both sides of the road, amidst trucks painted in wild, psychedelic colors.
I found two small brass hand compasses for gifts. One has a lid that screws off with a Robert Frost verse inside and a sundial that folds up. The other is also a sighting device. Both are English made from the early 1900’s. Or maybe fakes. who knows?
Ali said, “Let me handle this.” and took over negotiating with the shop owner.
Neither instrument accurately pointed north, but in this desolate place where the vessels that carried them here from “Ross – London – 1906” are cut apart and put to their final rest, a place Jerome referred to as “the world’s garbage dump”, north is only an idea for the other people who can leave.
- GDP data: CIA World Fact Book
- Population data: July 1, 2009 estimate by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs – Population Division