Playing on the track, dicing with death
When the train thunders past with a loud whistle rattling her portable earthen stove, Rokeya carefully moves to her shanty. She has no time to see where her two-year-old daughter is or to check whether she is safe as she is busy cooking for her family. Little Smriti was engrossed in playing on the railway track when the train neared her, almost running over her. She only escaped death at the last moment with a few minor injuries, thanks to the quick reflexes of her malnourished, skinny body. Rokeya came to know about her child's almost miraculous escape after the event. Smriti, like most children, forgot her horrifying brush with death and soon joined the games of other tiny skin-and-bone children in the long strip of slum on the two sides of the railway track from Malibagh to the outskirts of Tongi.
Russel, Billal, Aleya, Rhidoy, Molly and some other children are among the lucky survivors of the juggernaut locomotives in the slums beside the tracks. Many have not been so lucky and have died prematurely under the iron wheels of trains. Although Smriti survives she suffers from a permanent hearing problem. But she is luckier than her brother Rhidoy who lost his left hand four years ago. The accident occurred when he was playing with a kite in the 5-foot-wide strip of land between their shack and the railway track. His hand was severed and his head and chest were injured. Their grandmother Hajera was also hit by the train 15 years back when she was drying pumpkin seeds on the track. She somehow lives on with a mutilated body and permanent physical disability.
'God saved me and my grandchildren; He sent an angel to protect the innocent kids,' said Hajera, retaining her faith in a benevolent God in spite of her pitiful life in the 20-square-foot shanty along with 8 members of her family. Hajera, pointing at Smriti, said these children can hardly stay for 10 minutes in the tiny, airless congested room. 'The railway track is the only place for them to play. We cannot tie them up, can we?' Rokeya, Smriti's mother, said, 'My children are very naughty. How long I can stop them from going to the tracks?' Aleya, 4, another victim, was sitting on the track holding a plate with some rice in it. Her mother Minara said Aleya, at the age 2, crawled onto the track without being seen. 'The train crossed, cutting off her right wrist.'
Aleya's cousin Sitara also lost her wrist and three fingers of the other hand. 'There is no way for my daughter to survive except by begging. No one will marry her and she has no future,' said Bedana Begum, mother of 8-year-old Sitara. The safety measures taken by the families to protect their children include knowing the tentative times of trains passing and keeping an ear cocked to hear the whistle. But in spite of such precautions accidents continue to happen, said the slum dwellers who have migrated to the capital because of extreme poverty.
Sometimes their precautions are useless, especially when the trains are later or earlier than the scheduled time or when trains pass from both the sides. The children become puzzled and cannot get off the tracks in time, they said. Some families consider such accidents to be blessings instead of curses as the disabled children can earn a good sum of money by begging. Such accidents make the mothers grieve, but they send their disabled children out to beg for sheer survival. Begging is a bit more paying than picking discarded things, like rags or paper, to sell for recycling or working as day labourers in the kitchen markets, said Momin Mia, who lives beside the track. In around one kilometre of the track-side slum behind Karwanbazar, about 15 children and adults have been disabled by the trains.
Records of the Government Railway Police say that 119 persons died in train accidents from January to 21 September 2005 in the track from Narayanganj to Tongi. In 2004 as many as 172 people died under the trains' wheels in the 38 km track. Sub-inspector Rafiqul Islam of the Railway Police Thana said middle-aged people are the worst victims of such accidents. The death rate among the children is lower. They survive with major and minor injuries and after losing their limbs, maybe because their young age makes their bodies more resilient.
Locomotive master Abdur Rahman said they have to drive through the track-side slums with extra caution, which often delays their schedule. 'We drive slowly because of the people's movement on the track, but when we see people still walking on the track, not caring for the whistle, we cannot help but run over them because we cannot brake in time.'