The Place Where The Ships Die… Or The Door To Hell (photo essay)

Chittagong Ship Breaking Yards are the world second biggest and are situated mostly between the towns Bhatiara and Sitakunda, along 20 kilometers northwest from Chittagong.

Workers walking in the mud, Chittagong Ship Breaking yards, Chittagong, Bangladesh, Indian Sub-Continent, Asia

Imagine a magnificent long beach, where instead of tourists and parasols there are huge old ships, scattered chaotically. During the low tide, these ships or rather their wrecks remain in the mud, all of them with a list, half disintegrated, similar to some surrealistic sculptures. The essence of dramatism is added to the landscape by the army of Bengali workers, who, equipped with hammers and torch-lamps and using their raw physical force, disintegrate in peaces the gigantic metallic trunks of the ships. From afar, these people look like ants creeping on the enormous scraps or tramping in the mud around. In 2008, the industry which employs almost 200 000 workers according to data of the World Bank, has its mushroom growth as the half of the ships in the world are scrapped exactly in Chittagong Ship Breaking Yards. At this time, the journalist interest in this place is attracted as well and one of the most important journalistic investigations is made by Daniel Schorn of CBS (see the link below). 

Part-dismantled ship remains strewn across the beach during low-tide, Chittagong Ship Breaking yards, Chittagong, Bangladesh, Indian Sub-Continent, Asia

Larger companies disassemble 2 to 3 ships at the same time. For instance, for tankers with 7000 to 8000 DWT (Deadweight tonnage) it takes about 4 to 6 months to be disassembled, and for the big cargo ships – about 8 to 9 months. In 2010, 79 companies for scrap have been registered on the beach of Sitakunda, and 61 of them are working actively, employing about 30 000 workers. At any moment, around 30 ships are anchored chaotically between the towns of Bhatiara and Sitakunda.

Part-dismantled ship remains strewn across the beach during low-tide, Chittagong Ship Breaking yards, Chittagong, Bangladesh, Indian Sub-Continent, Asia

In 2009 (the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), a public-advocacy group, managed to convince the Supreme Court in Dhaka to prohibit the activity of the recycling companies, which do not observe the specific ecological and labour standards. Therefore, by the end of 2010 the rate of growth of this industry decreases, and the fences of the companies become higher and barbed, and the security cameras more modern. 

Workers walking in the mud, Chittagong Ship Breaking yards, Chittagong, Bangladesh, Indian Sub-Continent, Asia

Yes, the owners of these companies have what to worry about and one of the main reasons are the 12-14-year old children who work there, in the same heavy conditions as their older colleagues and earning for that about 1 US$ per day. One of the most shocking problem of this place is exactly the child labour. People from Delphine Reuter of the Shipbreaking Platform, an NGO in Brussels, describe the ship recycling process in Chittagong as “close to slavery”. A cruel irony I also find in the fact that this place is often used as a set-scene by the local and international film industry for their movie mega productions. However, in this set-scene are living and working very real children. It is strange how the same place could serve for some people as a set-scene and source of millions of dollars, but is a real hell for others. 

Part-dismantled ship remains strewn across the beach during low-tide, Chittagong Ship Breaking yards, Chittagong, Bangladesh, Indian Sub-Continent, Asia

Most of the ships “live” a few decades and in the end they often are scrapped. This is the moment when these veterans are sent to these amazing (in the past) beaches, and the armies of workers rush to them, hungry for steel, ship equipment and everything which could be sold. Basically the steel is what is recycled, and the equipment is being sold as souvenirs or for other purposes in hundreds of shops along the road. Along with the steel, these ships are full of waste, which is toxic for both people and environment, as for instance the asbestos, PCBs, lead, cadmium, arsenic, zinc and chromium, black oil and burned oil – all of them classified by the Basel Convention as dangerous. According to Bangladesh authorities, since the beginning of the boom in this industry back in 90’s of last century, around 500 workers have died due to occupational injuries and another 6 000 have been injured. 

Workers at the Chittagong Ship Breaking yards, Chittagong, Bangladesh, Indian Sub-Continent, Asia

The significant pollution and the danger for the health of workers resulting from that is for me the second most important problem in this place. The article I mentioned above provides detailed information for those you who are interested in learning more about that issue.

I’ve been thinking whether to share or not where I did find access to those ships, with a splendid view to them. I decided finally to do it, because I’m sure that it’s better for people to go, to see, to take picture and then to tell. In the small town named Kumira (the last one on the beach where there are ships for disassembling), in about an hour from Chittagong, there is a long bridge, jutting out into the sea, and this a popular place, used by local people basically for walks or as a place for entertainment and rest. From this bridge, there is a good view to the ships lying on the beach. You may walk freely and to shoot right from the bridge. It is recommendable to be equipped with a “long” lens, but even with Canon EF 17-35mm f/2.8 USM L, which I use as my main one, you can take some good pictures. It is very difficult to get inside the ships and to talk with the workers (I would say it is rather impossible). 

If you fly from Dhaka to Chittagong, right before the plane to land, you can see these long beaches with the scattered everywhere on them ships and you may for sure photograph them.

The photographic aspect of this article treats the shooting of dangerous and hard to reach areas. In general, in order to access the area, you have to be persistent, creative, constant in your efforts, you have to use all the permitted and not that permitted (by the security for instance) means, and your acting skills would be very useful. I took me for instance 3 days of tramping in the mud and hanging about the fences with a hope to find some hole in them and to access the beach with ships and people. 

Part-dismantled ship remains strewn across the beach during low-tide, Chittagong Ship Breaking yards, Chittagong, Bangladesh, Indian Sub-Continent, Asia

To have a good guide is of critical importance for that. 

It is better for you to have your camera in your bag set in automatic mode, which would allow you to quickly take it out, to shoot the scene and then to put it back in the bag. This is critical, if you have to quickly run. 

When I was leaving this place, the last thing I saw was a notice written on the steady door of one of those companies, which read – “No Child Labor. Safety First.” It was not written in Bengali, because “obviously” it goes without saying for all those who work there, while children – they anyway cannot read, because simply don’t have time for this.

Workers at the Chittagong Ship Breaking yards, Chittagong, Bangladesh, Indian Sub-Continent, Asia

Chittagong Ship Breaking Yards Image Gallery

Images from Bangladesh