Transcript of Champa Devi Shukla, who has been leading the fight against Dow for the past 32 years. She has lost most of her family in the genocide and tells us of the horrors she has lived since the dreadful night of 2/3rd December 1984. She also works to rehabilitate handicapped children.
As told to Indra S Singh.
CDS:I have been living in Bhopal since 1972. We moved there from Jabalpur to a place of residence near the dreaded Union Carbide factory. First in 1982 there was fire in the factory, and then there was another incident in the factory in which a person was killed. Then minister of labour Babulal Gaur got a settlement down between the workers and the company after a compensation of Rs 5000 (USD 73) was paid to next of kin and made sure the family was moved out of Bhopal. Now during the 2/3rd December night, 1984 we were asleep, when around midnight my son started to feel irritation in his eyes. A man from next door came running in to our house and and informed me, “Run for your lives! Please leave this space quickly, as there is a gas leak from UCC. It is too dangerous and we are all going to die” . We ran barefoot towards the bus stand in hope of help, or transport to escape the city, but none was available. Dizzy from the gas, my husband hit a boulder and his urinary bladder burst there because of the exposure to the gas. He called out and said, “leave me here and go save the children. Otherwise we will all die”. At this point, I refused and said, “If we all have to die, we will die together.”
My two sons went ahead and were heavily exposed to the poisonous gases, while my two daughters and youngest son stayed with me and my husband. It was shortly afterwards that my two daughters, poisoned by the gas, started frothing from their mouths and became unconscious. Among this chaos and death, all we could think of was how to save my daughters. There was a water pipe nearby, so I wet a cloth and placed it over their faces, which reduced the effects a little; they regained consciousness, but were still suffering terribly. We spent the entire night on the street and then at about 5am government announced that we could return to our houses. But my husband was not in a state to go anywhere. A Muslim man we knew helped us get to the hospital, making me realise the fragile state of my husband. But when we reached the hospital my soul shrieked with pain, seeing the macabre state of the hospital. Hundreds of people were poisoned and crying for help, and there was a heap of dead people right next to them. As soon as someone shrieked in pain and was beyond saving the doctors would simply throw the person in the heap of dead people. I feared: what if they put us or our children in the heap? So we decided to go back home. When we came back home, the noxious gas was still in the house, and had destroyed everything. We all lost consciousness when walking back in the house. Then when the military truck had come to pick up all the dead bodies, a man noticed us and got us transferred to the hospital. There we received some injections and eye drops after which we regained consciousness at 10.30 am and left back for home. Once we got back, at 11 am we heard that there was a second gas leak; at this point we thought that could be the moment of our death. So we stayed in the house in fear, but it later turned out to be a hoax. Some people decided to burn the factory, and this announcement was made to divert them away. For about fifteen days, our eyes were swollen and any amount of light seemed to cause intense pain. Students from the Tata institute helped us, they would come and give us food packets and eye drops. My husband’s condition was getting worse. I had a younger son who helped us recuperate.
After the swelling in the eyes subsided, we cleaned the house and found that all the household rations of rice, dal, and flour had turned green. This firstly led to food scarcity; secondly, the symptoms of the long-term toxic effects of the gas were beginning to manifest in my family members.
My husband had burst his urinary bladder, and thus he used to sit in the bathroomall day. When we reached the hospital, the doctor told us that if they operated my husband he would die in the operation theatre. The only solution for him was to wear a condom during the day and tie his duct with a tube at night. He lived like this for 12 years before his urinary bladder developed cancer and he died from it. Soon after I lost most of family. My eldest son had been heavily exposed to the poisonous methyl isocyanate gas (MIC), for which he suffered irreparablelung damage. Tired after long years of unbearable suffering, he consumed sulphas (insecticide) and committed suicide. My younger son died due to heavy exposure to MIC. He had large blisters all over his body and soon succumbed to it. My elder daughter suffered from swelling of the bones, she too suffered deeply and after many years of treatment is now better. My youngst daughter suffered a paralysis attack and after many years of treatment she got slightly better; I got her married but the in-laws don’t keep her because of the medical bills. Once I realised both my daughters were suffering at their in-laws I got them home and did what I could for them. Now their husbands have come and taken them back, and they are living with them, earning with them and are happy with them.
ISS: Could you tell us about the morning of 3rd December 1984? What was happening?
CDS: When we came back on 3rd December we saw lines of dead bodieson the streets. Human bodies where thrown around like trash. There were municipality trucks that were picking up the dead bodies. But as the dawn came, trucks were picking up dead bodies and taking them to Begumganj jungles and burning them with petrol. These were also people dying in their sleep: trucks were taking away dead bodies to throw in the Narmada river, Hosrangabad. The Government never disclosed an accurate number of deaths that night. It is my estimate there were more than 20,00-25000 deaths due to the disaster that night.
ISS: What is current situation?
CDS: Today the situation is horrendous. This gas leaked only for one day, but its side effect are much more dangerous and long-lasting. The contaminated water is still being used by children and people who are suffering and developing mutations and succumbing to new diseases. Today children are being born handicapped and with congenital deformities. So the current situation is much worse than that of that night. Today cancer is common as viral fever in this area.
ISS: Why do you think you were saved, you were given the gift of life by god?
CDS: Maybe it was to look after these children (handicapped children that are being rehabilitated by Chingari Trust). I feel after the death of five of my family members, God by giving me these children has once again blessed me with a family that once again I can nourish and look after. As long as I am alive, I will continue to serve these children, live for them. Whatever is in my power, I will do. Now we have a responsibility to take care of our children and only when these children are strong, independent and disease-free can we get any relief.
Author: Indra Shekhar Singh
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