“Come down, come down, it’s too dangerous,” shouts Ramesh trying to dissuade his cousin already past the second floor on the way up to his fifth-floor flat where he had left his old and ailing parents, wife and children — aged 2 and 1 — on Friday before leaving for work.
The man, who looked about 30 years old, would not listen as he drove himself up on a flimsy rope hung from a fifth-floor verandah. Nitin climbed past the final barrier — a huge chunk of concrete jutting out of a destroyed flat on the fourth floor which also had a balcony almost hanging by a thread.
A hush descended below where his cousin, his uncle and a visitor stood watching, when the factory superviser disappeared into his apartment.
One minute, two minutes, three minutes — the cousin and uncle started fidgeting as they grew frantic with worry looking up and down the side of the Srijanand Tower in the heart of Bhuj.
Suddenly Nitin was back on the verandah, his face grim as the overcast sky. He walked towards the guard-rails and leaned over as if to commit suicide. “Nitin, Nit...”, Ramesh’s voice trailed off. But the man did not leap down. He just stretched out his hands, clutched the rope and almost rappelled down.
Nitin held his head in his arms. Tears poured down his dirt-smudged face. “We have told him the truth before. But he would not believe us. He had wanted to see it for himself.”
Ramesh saw a gaping hole when he climbed into the flat yesterday using the ropes. The floor of the living room had caved in in the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that ripped Bhuj apart.
Nitin’s bedroom remained intact. It was breakfast time when the tremors started on Friday and the family was in the living room — nibbling at puri subji Nitin’s wife had made and watching TV.
Today, rescuers from Britain in their bright blue uniform and helmets sat nearby with sonar equipment.
“We bore into the building at 11 last night and saw lots of bodies,” said Ray Wright, leader of the International Rescue Corps sent by the UK to Bhuj. “But we couldn’t bring out any bodies as we didn’t have heavy equipment.”
Wright, who had led his team to the quake-ravaged Turkey two years ago, did not think anyone could have survived under the masonry for more than three days. “Chances are very, very slim. Only a handful of residents came out alive from the seven-storey building with 56 flats.”
Wright said he had looked into Nitin’s flat, too, but found much of it reduced to a crater.
Ranjeet Jadeja prodded Wright to give a last shot at tracing his uncle and his family living on the second floor. Wright shook his head in despair. “It is terrible inside. There is no sense going in unless you have the lifting equipment.”
Last night, the British rescuers spotted a man — possibly the lone survivor — writhing in pain, his body bloodied and both feet trapped under a huge slab of concrete.
The army doctors were called in. But they had a difficult choice: amputate his legs and risk his death or leave the trapped man there to die a slow, agonising death.
They took a chance and amputated his legs to bring him out. In 30 minutes the middle-aged man bled to death.
“It was a difficult decision. But the logic was why leave a body behind to rot when you can take it out by amputating his legs?” Wright asked. “There was no way the doctors could have saved him under the circumstances.”
An exposed wall of a room on the fifth floor sported posters of a sprinting cheetah and a small boy and a girl hugging each other. No one knows who used to stay in the room. There was no one to answer the question.
Rubble is all that’s left in Bhuj. The highrises that once dotted the skyline of the town — the district headquarters of Kutch and barely 200 km from the Pakistan border — are a heap of concrete and iron now.
Some said that on Saturday they heard faint cries of help from crumbled buildings, but the voices died down by Sunday with no government effort to rescue the survivors. “Had the government been prompt and brought in equipment like cranes immediately, my nephew and nieces could have been saved,” Jadeja said.
District collector Kamal Dayani conceded: “We had no cranes, no excavators, no bulldozers. But they have now started to arrive. So we hope to clear the debris in a few days.”
Bhuj, once a city of 200,000, now has the calmness of death. The survivors, who have fled, they were too terrified to lock their flats before going away. But thieves, too, appear to be staying clear of the city of death still being rocked by the aftershocks.
“Who will dare enter those flats to steal when most of them have cracks and may crumble at any moment?” asked Prakash Joshi, manager of a guest house, one of the few remaining residents.
Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf had said in the morning that India had declined his offer of help, but an Indian official denied any help had been offered.
However, Pakistan foreign minister Abdul Sattar said in the evening that New Delhi had welcomed Islamabad’s offer and asked for tents and blankets. “The government of Pakistan hopes to be able to send a planeload of relief goods on Tuesday morning,” he said.
Sattar’s Indian counterpart, Jaswant Singh asserted that India “did not want to play politics at the time of a tragedy”. He said India had not refused any country when asked by a Pakistani journalist at a function this afternoon whether Delhi will accept help from Islamabad.
India is looking for a large number of tents for the quake victims. An official had said after the Crisis Management Group meeting that Delhi requires tents, not in small numbers, but enough to settle an entire colony.
Sattar said the confusion arose after Delhi conveyed to Islamabad that it no longer needed sniffer dogs it had asked from Pakistan to trace people trapped under the debris.
The official APP news agency earlier quoted Musharraf as telling reporters in Islamabad: “I did offer help but their (India’s) response was a little unfortunate. They said they have plenty at home. They thanked us.”
India’s foreign office spokesman R.S. Jassal described Musharraf’s comment as a “trifle misleading”.
He pointed out that though India appreciated the generous offers of help, it had circulated through its missions a list of items required. “We have broadly conveyed our requirements to the governments offering help,” Jassal said, adding that the list was being changed as “it is an evolving situation”.
South Block suspects that Islamabad could be trying to show its “human face” to the international community by extending help. Singh made it clear that while India was committed to improving relations, it did not think that an earthquake will help normalise relations.
Vajpayee said NGOs were doing a “good job” in the affected areas but a lot more needed to be done for the victims.
“Relief work needs to be speeded up,” he told reporters in Bhuj after an aerial and road survey of the worst-hit areas. “The government is surveying the villages. There is a lack of relief work in the villages.”
Vajpayee, who visited Ahmedabad later in the day, said the manner in which relief work was progressing showed that “the nation is not equipped to tackle the crisis. We had realised after the Orissa supercyclone that we have no disaster management cell which we can activate at the time of a crisis like the one Gujarat is facing today”.
The Prime Minister announced that a national disaster management cell would be set up shortly in New Delhi to take care of natural calamities and their aftermath.
In Anjar, a town to the southeast of Bhuj so far bypassed by the main rescue effort, the smell of decomposing bodies hung in the air. But Vajpayee said there had been no reports of disease breaking out thus far in Gujarat.
While making the aerial survey from a MI-8 helicopter, a grim-looking Prime Minister said “the death toll is increasing”.
He, however, added that it was difficult to say how many people had been killed but cautioned it “should not be overestimated or underestimated”. “This is an extraordinary disaster. Everyone has to face the problem together shoulder-to-shoulder,” he said.
The Prime Minister said “neither funds nor any other kind of assistance will be a constraint” in ensuring that the state is rebuilt at the earliest. Besides the Central assistance, Vajpayee sanctioned an additional Rs 20 crore from the Prime Minister’s relief fund over and above the Rs 10 crore already announced.
Vajpayee, who brushed aside warnings of the dangers of the after-tremors to make this visit, drove 55 km by road from Kandla to Bhuj, stopping at Ratnal village and some other places on the highway.
He visited a destroyed village, a military hospital and a collapsed apartment building in Bhuj.
World Bank aidThe World Bank today offered an immediate assistance of $ 300 million as first tranche to carry out emergency rehabilitation work in the quake-hit areas in Gujarat.
Following finance minister Yashwant Sinha’s request for a $ 1 billion assistance for reconstruction work, the bank said it will provide both immediate and long-term support for reconstruction.
Two decades after portraying the misery of life in the city of joy through the travails of a rickshaw-puller, Dominique Lapierre has penned the tale of the lakhs of victims who succumbed to or survived the Bhopal gas tragedy.
Titled It Was 5 Past Midnight in Bhopal, Lapierre’s new novel is based in Bhopal but his lead characters do not necessarily belong to Madhya Pradesh.
“They are numerous people from Orissa who migrated to Bhopal several years before the gas tragedy in search of employment,” he told The Telegraph.
“My hero is Gangaram, a former leper and his wife Dalima. They survived the gas tragedy and are living here even now but in pathetic health. I have been fortunate to spend some considerable time in the last three days with my hero and his wife.”
The 400-page “true story”, which Lapierre has co-authored with his nephew, Spanish journalist Javier Moro, is slated for release in French and Spanish editions by March 15.
The novel will be released simultaneously in Paris, Madrid and Barcelona. The English version will be ready for release only next year.
Lapierre is now on a week-long visit to Bhopal where he inaugurated a gynaecological clinic for survivors of the gas tragedy. The “Dominique Lapierre — City of Joy Sambhavna Gynaecological Clinic” has been receiving financial assistance from the City of Joy Foundation since the last two years.
The celebrity French author has been visiting gas affected areas of old Bhopal and spending time with the destitute victims, enquiring about their compensation and health.
“I love suffering people wherever they are. I found suffering people in the slums of Calcutta. I met them and in my own way tried to alleviate their problems. Similarly now with Bhopal when I see the sequel of the gas tragedy,” Lapierre said. “My new book has many surprises. At least it will expose the shortcomings and the criminal behaviour of the Union Carbide management.”
The company no longer exists and no representative has approached the authors of the book yet.
Three years ago, a group of people from Bhopal met Lapierre in France. They requested him to visit the city of the nawabs, “see” and “write” about Madhya Pradesh.
“I came to Bhopal with Javier Moro and interviewed over 300 people, including gas victims, doctors and former employees of Union Carbide.”
Moro came back again a year later to do fresh research for the book.
“The tragedy of Bhopal did not just strike and live for one night in the habitats. It is a tragedy every day, the victims live through the disaster and suffer the catastrophe each single day. There are more than two lakh such hapless men and women who are living through such an ordeal,” Lapierre said.
“Myself and Javier Moro attempted more than once to meet Warren Anderson, then chairman of Union Carbide. But he is absconding and no longer resides in his home in Florida. But we met former engineers who designed the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal,” he said.
Lapierre’s new book reveals that Union Carbide plant was up for sale when disaster struck the sleeping city on the intervening night of Dec 2-3, 1994. “The plant was no longer yielding profits and the plan was to dismantle the factory and send it to Brazil. A group of the company’s engineers was already on the job,” Moro told reporters. “Corroded pipes of the plant were not changed for months.”
But even as Lapierre seems to be engrossed with his second city of joy, making friends with gas victims and chief minister Digvijay Singh, he vehemently denies he has forgotten Calcutta.
“No way. I have not abandoned Calcutta for Bhopal. Calcutta will always be shining in my heart. I have received so much from Calcuttans, I will continue to repay my debts to them,” he said.
“If things work out the way they should, I will be in Calcutta for a week-long visit from Wednesday.”
Lapierre, his wife and team of co-authors will visit the Sundarbans on February 1.
He will also inaugurate a rehabilitation centre of 150 houses for abandoned mothers in Uluberia.