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Tuesday April 11, 2006

Bangladesh’s quiet hero

Abul Khaer’s selfless dedication to his work – recovering the bodies of ferry accident victims – has made him a national hero in Bangladesh, reports SHAFIQ ALAM. 

THE scene is etched in Abul Khaer’s mind: several thousand villagers line a desolate riverbank, their eyes following his every move as he prepares to plunge into the dark, swirling waters in search of the bodies of their loved ones. 

A ferry with at least 100 passengers on board has gone down and the 38-year-old Khaer and an elite team of fire service divers have been called to the scene. 

Abul Khaer: ‘It gives the relatives (of accident victims) a certain peace of mind if they can at least bury their dead.’
The boat is lying in 15 metres of water at the bottom of the mighty Padma river and currents five times their normal strength have prevented them from searching the sunken vessel – to the frustration of anguished relatives who have gathered to wait for news. 

A day after it capsized the ferry is already silted up with tonnes of sand. With every hour the chance of recovering any bodies at all becomes slimmer. 

Other divers have decided that the currents are too strong to go down in. The hopes of everyone in the crowd now rest with the slightly-built Khaer. 

“Those anxious eyes are difficult to deny,” says the soft-spoken diver and firefighter, recalling the scene of last May’s tragedy near the town of Aricha in central Bangladesh. 

“They expect that the diver with his magic diving suit and oxygen cylinder will somehow find their missing relative. People think we can do miracles but they don’t understand that we only have basic equipment and two bare hands to work with.” 

For more than 15 years Khaer, the son of a Muslim cleric and his country’s top diver, has dedicated himself to the sad but essential work of recovering bodies from capsized boats. 

In doing so he has made himself a national hero on call for any emergency from fires and ferry disasters to talking down suicides. 

Out of his working environment, however, the married father of 15-year-old twins is shy and reticent.  

Colleagues see Khaer as nothing short of a miracle worker, though at Aricha even he was defeated by the forces of nature. 

“This was the most difficult assignment of my life, I have never experienced anything like it,” he says. “These were killer currents, so strong they felt as if they were crushing my limbs and suffocating me. 

“I was determined to rescue some bodies but when I tried to go inside the ferry I found it was already silted up. I felt one body near a window so I tied it to my rope. But as soon as I started swimming to the surface the currents hit me with all their force, taking all the sensation from my arms and legs and knocking off my mask.” 

Khaer, attached to a rescue boat by a rope, was swept hundreds of metres downstream and had to be hauled to safety. Only the rope and the fact that he managed to hang onto his oxygen cylinder saved his life. 

Not deterred by the experience, he dived again the following day in a final attempt to attach a salvage rope to the vessel. 

“He took the challenge. It was amazing,” reacalls fellow fire service diver Chand Mia. “After he dived I told my colleagues, ‘That is the end of Khaer’. 

“I thought he would end up buried under the sands like all the others – but as usual he came back to tell us with a smile how he’d managed to tie a rope in not just one but two places.” 

Ferries provide daily transport for an estimated 100,000 people in Bangladesh, mostly the rural poor who have no choice but to travel on the delta nation’s network of some 230 rivers. 

Accidents claim hundreds of lives a year, mostly needless losses caused by the greed of profit-hungry ferry owners who overload boats or build extra cabins that make them unstable. 

Boat owners deny the accusations but experts say the alterations cause ferries that would otherwise not sink to flip over within seconds of hitting rough weather. 

After each fresh tragedy, inquiries are announced and new safety regulations promised. 

But the accidents continue with predictable regularity as successive governments have found themselves powerless in the face of the powerful boat owners’ lobby.  

Khaer’s selfless dedication and repeated willingness to risk his life has earned him the gratitude of thousands of families. 

Always a strong swimmer as a child, he began his career in 1990 after a relative suggested he answer an advertisement for fire department divers, a rare opportunity for someone from a poor rural background. 

With a few years’ experience under his belt, he was told he could quit the low-paying fire service and earn big money as a commercial diver in one of the Gulf states. 

But within months of completing basic diving and firefighter training, Khaer had started to distinguish himself, quickly earning a reputation as a man who would take on any challenge no matter how daunting. 

In the same year that he joined, he single-handedly saved the lives of 300 female workers in a factory fire by climbing to the fourth floor where they were trapped and breaking open the windows. 

Bangladeshi volunteers pulling a dead body (left) and diver Abul Khaer out of the Padma river during a rescue operation after a ferry capsized in Aricha in May last year.
He also holds a national firefighting record for being able to climb 13.5 metres up a ladder in six seconds. 

Khaer, however, is characteristically modest about his work. 

“I have lost count of the number of bodies I have recovered but it is more than a thousand,” he says. “It gives the relatives a certain peace of mind if they can at least bury their dead.” 

His colleagues have nothing but praise for his tenacity and mental and physical toughness. 

“He was absolutely resolved to dive at Aricha, but in the process he almost killed himself,” says Nurul Haq, Khaer’s trainer and assistant director of Dhaka fire brigade. 

“We told him ‘don’t dive against such a strong current, your limbs will fail, your oxygen cylinder will be washed away and you could die at any moment.’” 

“In diving, he is second to none. In firefighting too, he is the best the country has,” Haq says. 

Despite being their country’s finest rescue workers, Khaer and his colleagues work in appalling conditions. Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest countries and scarce resources mean ageing equipment, no health insurance or overtime pay.  

“Time and time again I have asked for better equipment but my bosses just say that there is no money for this,” says Khaer.  

Rivers polluted with raw sewage and industrial waste make the divers vulnerable to disease and infection. 

Understaffing and Khaer’s desire to recover bodies quickly – so they can be returned to already distressed families in relatively good condition – also mean that he frequently makes repeated dives within a short time. 

This puts him at risk of an array of health problems, some potentially fatal, from hearing loss to liver, retina and heart damage. 

“Science says that you should not dive for more than an hour a day, yet Khaer dives non-stop,” says Lieutenant Commander Mahbubur Rashid of the Bangladesh Navy, who has led more than a dozen rescue operations in which Khaer has played a leading role. 

“I remember one accident when Khaer was diving all day and night. At one stage he came up with more than a dozen dead bodies in one go, all tied together with a rope like prayer beads,” says his fire service colleague Mia. 

“He was relentless and rescued more than 60 dead bodies, more than twice the number the rest of us divers pulled out together. 

“Another time during some floods, he dived six hours at a stretch to find the body of a young child. We all gave up hope because the river was flooding and no one was sure where the child had gone down. But Khaer found him.”  

“The best thing about Khaer is his determination and his risk-taking attitude,” adds Haq. “It is always Khaer who puts himself forward. He doesn’t think about himself. They say we don’t have heroes, but this diver is ours.” – AFP  


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