from Sunday Herald, 07 December 2014, from Bhopal
It was Sajid’s furry, orange babygrow stretched out inside the black museum case that triggered the agony. Oblivious of the people crowded around, his mother, Bismilla Bee, started shaking with loud sobs, rising and falling, as the painful memories came flooding back.
Her son died 30 years ago last week in the babygrow, choking on the poison gas that spewed from Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. She donated it to the museum, but when she saw it on display, her grief became suddenly overwhelming.
Bismilla Bee was at the official opening of the Remember Bhopal Museum to mark the 30th anniversary of the horrific disaster. The museum, originated and curated by survivors and activists, features a series of other tragic personal reminders: a battered doll, an old cricket bat, a bridal dress, a walking stick, a stethoscope and a pair of crutches.
It is also full of moving testimonies. Bhopal resident Ruby Parvez talks about how she still cries and trembles when she thinks about that awful night. “We were sleeping and I felt a burning sensation in my eyes, and felt dizzy,” she says.
“The burning sensation increased and we started to feel breathless. We started to panic seeing heavy smoke. Our neighbour said ‘wake up, there is a gas leak and we have to escape or we will die.’”
Parvez fled, vomited and lost consciousness for a couple of hours. Her cousin, who was with her, died, along with many of her relatives. “We were horrified by the sight around us. There were dead bodies everywhere. There were carcasses of animals all around.”
Another Bhopal survivor, 67-year-old Gangaram, was sleeping with his blanket over his face. “When I came outside, thousands of people were running,” he recalls.
“Suddenly I started to cough and my eyes began to inflame. Then, along with my family, I started running in the same direction as everyone was running. From my house to the bus stand, there were dead bodies, dead bodies, dead bodies and only dead bodies.”
The museum was deliberately set up to pre-empt an official memorial planned by the Madhya Pradesh government on the site of the deserted Union Carbide factory. Survivors are opposed to the official memorial, blaming the government for some of the injustices they have suffered.
One of the leading survivors behind the idea for the new museum is Rashida Bee. She was born in 1956, and by the age of 10 was helping the family earn a living by rolling cigarettes.
She fell asleep rolling cigarettes in Bhopal on 2 December 1984, and woke with her eyes watering. “It felt like someone was burning chillies,” she says. “We didn’t know what was happening.”
Outside people were running, screaming that everyone would die, and her whole family got up and ran. “My eyes were tight shut. I could not open them because of the pain. Whenever I did manage to squeeze them open, all I saw were piles of corpses scattered around.”
People were blindly running over the bodies, and Rashida Bee joined them. “That’s when I heard an announcement saying that gas had stopped leaking from the Union Carbide factory. That was the first time I heard the name of Union Carbide.”
Her friend, Champa Devi, used to wash her clothes in a pond behind the Union Carbide factory. “We soon began to notice that our hands would burn every time we washed clothes and small boils would appear on them. We had no clue why this was happening,” she says.
On the evening before the leak, she watched a film on the television, and went to bed. She was woken by a neighbour around 12.30 in the morning saying that everyone had to leave or they would die.
“The moment we opened the door, gas gushed into the house. We began coughing and our eyes burned. It was difficult even to breath. We rushed out of the house in whatever clothes we were wearing.”
Champa Devi has never forgotten what she saw. “People were running, coughing and screaming for death,” she says. “I couldn’t see a thing, except a hazy white mist and a mass of humanity ahead of us. Those who fell lay on the ground with no-one to pick them up.”
She got a lift to the hospital, which was overwhelmed with people crying and shrieking. “Corpses were piled high, like sacks of wheat in a stack. Anyone who fell or fainted was thrown on the pile. The doctors had no clue how to deal with the situation or what medication to offer. I was scared.”
Her son, unable to bear the agony of constant chest pain from the gas leak, committed suicide in 1992, and her husband died of bladder cancer in 1993. Her daughter was paralysed six months after the accident and, despite extensive treatment, still has a twisted mouth.
“I felt my life was empty and barren, and I was in a state of mental paralysis,” she recalls. “But seeing the families around me, I soon realised there were many like me who had lost their loved ones to the gas. Life would have to go on. That’s how I decided to dedicate the remaining days of my life fighting for justice for the Bhopal gas victims.”
Now Champa Devi and Rashida Bee are two of the veteran leaders of the movement for justice for Bhopal survivors. They won the international Goldman Environmental Award in 2004 and donated the $125,000 prize money to setting up the all-women Chingari Trust, which runs a health clinic for children of Bhopal survivors.
Chingari means the spark that starts the fire, and it’s echoed in the rallying cry used by Champa Devi and Rashida Bee. “We are the women of Bhopal, we are flames not flowers.”
Standing in the hot sun outside the stationery factory they help run with Bhopal survivors, they sounded indomitable last week. “It is the willpower of all the women combined that has never let us down,” declares Rashida Bee.
“When tragedy brings suffering in your life, you should have confidence, and be strong. Keep fighting and you will find that you will win in the end.”
Rob Edwards travelled to Bhopal with a Scottish trade union delegation.