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18 years on, President comforts ‘living’ dead

Bhopal, Sept. 5 (Reuters): Eighteen years later, the tears haven’t stopped. Gasping, wheezing and barely able to walk, thousands of the “living dead”, survivors of the Bhopal poison gas disaster, relive their nightmare every day.

President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam visited a special hospital for victims in the city today to find people still reeling under the effects of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters that killed about 3,000 people outright and thousands more later.

“Those of us who are alive are dying everyday. Only medicines keep us alive,” said Shoaib Mohammed Khan, a scrawny 21-year-old, taking laboured breaths on a hospital bed.

When he was three, Khan was one of the half-million residents exposed to the deadly methyl isocyanate gas, tonnes of which leaked out of the US-based Union Carbide’s Bhopal factory on the night of December 2, 1984. Since then, Khan has been admitted to hospital several times for chronic respiratory problems.

Kalam urged hospital officials to ensure that facilities were made available to survivors. “Apart from medicines, apart from hospitals, certain human values have to come in a big way to remove the pain,” he said during a visit to a hospital built with funds from a trust set up by the Union Carbide in London 10 years ago.

“It’s a continuous process...They need physiological and psychological treatment,” the President said.

Though the government’s civil case against Union Carbide, which merged with the US-based Dow Chemical Co. two years ago, was settled in 1989 for $470 million, criminal cases continue.

Last week, a Bhopal court rejected a plea by the CBI to reduce charges against Warren Anderson, the former chairman of Union Carbide, from culpable homicide to a “rash and negligent act”. He faces a jail term of up to 10 years if found guilty.

Every family that lived within a few kilometres of the factory remembers scenes of death.

“I saw bodies lying on the road that night. Huge crowds of people were screaming and falling,” said Abdul Jabbar, 46, who has set up an organisation for gas-affected women.

“It was like a scene from hell with babies writhing spasmodically and dying,” said Sajida Banu, whose four-year-old son died.

She breaks down, unable to speak.

Siddique’s wife, Akbaribi, is now paralysed below the knees. His 22-year-old son suffers recurring ear and respiratory infections.

Although the government has built five hospitals and several dispensaries across the city to treat victims for free, survivors complain they are still asked to pay and have long waits for surgery.

“I sold my two houses and my wife’s jewellery. I am penniless and jobless today,” said 35-year-old Mohanlal Prajapati, who has four children. He added that he has spent more than Rs 3,00,000 treating a respiratory problem which leaves him too weak to walk.

Spending even a few minutes in the office of Jabbar, it seems as though the disaster happened just days ago.

Desperate and often in a panic, people stream in pleading for help in medical emergencies, complaining about harassment in hospitals or just asking for advice. The phone rings almost non-stop with similar requests.

“We are the living dead” is the common refrain among the thousands of chronically ill and poverty-stricken victims shuffling without hope from hospital to hospital.

Jabbar said of the half million exposed to the gas, about 1,00,000 are partially or totally disabled and 2,00,000 require constant medical care for chronic ailments.

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