In Their Words

ICJB has collected hundreds of first and third person accounts, describing what it was like the night of the disaster and how it affected the lives of those who lived.  If you would like to read more first hand accounts, please contact us.

  1. Sajida
  2. Shahabuddin
  3. Mangla Ram
  4. Abdul Kadeer Mansuri
  5. Aziza Sultan
  6. Kailash Pawar
  7. Laccho Bai
  8. Mehboob Bee

 

Sajida

AGE at time of interview: 20 years, AGE at time of disaster: 6 years, NEIGHBORHOOD: Near Military Gate, Shahajahanabad

“I was in the first grade at the time of the gas disaster. I remember being woken up by people in my family. I remember everyone vomiting and groaning and then joining the crowd of people who were trying to run away from the clouds of poison. Since then my problem of breathlessness has been getting worse, my eye problems are also getting worse and now everything appears blurry. I am also getting more and more weak. I was very keen on studying but I failed my exams in the eigth grade. I was very sick at the time of the examination. I told my teacher that I could not write my exams because of my illness but she refused to take my application for leave of absence.

So I failed and that was the end of my studies. I have never stopped regretting this. When I see other women pursuing their studies I wish I had continued. Since I was a child I wanted to do something important, become someone famous, and I still cannot accept that none of my wishes will ever come true. Now I spend most of my time doing chores at home and some embroidery work with “zari.” My eyes go blurred when I work with “zari.”

It’s been over 10 years since I have been so sick. I have been admitted to the hospital several times. My elder brother Rayees used to be so breathless, he had to sit through the whole night. His lungs were badly damaged. He died four years back. He died in the hospital. I think of him often and the one thing I feel really bad about is that I was not there by his side when he died. My father owned a truck and three auto-rickshaws. He sold them one by one to pay for Rayees’ medical bills. Now my father rents an autorickshaw for the day and our family survives on what he makes.

For the last one month he has been sick in bed and I am taking care of household expenses through my “zari” work. My mother Aneesa too is sick. She is breathless, has chest pain and pain in the stomach, and she has swelling in her limbs. She has a fever that never leaves her.”

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Shahabuddin

AGE at time of interview : 38 years, AGE at time of disaster: 24 years, NEIGHBORHOOD: Quazi Camp

“I used to work as a load carrier before the gas. After I got exposed, for two years I was so breathless I could not do any work. Also I would get these sudden panic attacks out of nowhere. I had itching on my whole body and when I scratched I got eruptions all over.

About a month back I got this severe pain in my left leg. There would be a dull pain starting from my waist down till my foot. It would get intense all of a sudden with the pain traveling up and down the back of my leg. There was no way I could work, I could not even walk. Even going to the toilet was difficult. For five nights in a row I could not sleep properly. The pain kept me awake. I took all kinds of pills but nothing worked. Then the doctor at the Sambhavna Clinic told me to take Panchakarma therapy. It has been 20 days since I have been taking this treatment and am feeling much better. I can walk with ease though there is still slight pain. I have also started going to work since the last five days. I am not taking any medicines.

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Mangla Ram

As told in Sunday Magazine, Calcutta, India 16-22 December, 1984

It was a sight that Mangla Ram will never forget. An entire settlement was scampering out of their homes running southwest, towards the city centre without really knowinq where to go or what to do. Many collapsed on the way, some for ever. Children vomited blood. Pregnant women stumbled and tell on the ground crying in pain and bleeding profusely. With the grey clouds of death chasing them their fear turned into panic. Relatives did not wait to pick up the bodies of those they loved and were alive only moments ago. Children got separated from their parents, husbands from their wives and brothers from their sisters, in the mad rush to run away from the clouds. Many were trampled to death. As a terrified and sick populace moved forward, more people–the residents of neighboring Chola Road, Tilla Jampaipura, Sindhi Colony, Railway Colony and Chandbad settlements–joined them. The resourceful and the affluent had already fled in whatever transport they could manage to secure. Only the poor were left behind…

[W]hen he arrived at the hospital it was 2:3 0 a.m. By then the hospital had received more people than it could accommodate. All or most of them were in a critical condition gasping for breath. As Mangla Ram placed his wife on the steps at the entrance of the hospital she hardly moved’. . . [Wlhen a young doctor lifted his wife’s hand to feel her pulse, it was already stiff and cold. The doctor covered her face with the sheet she was wrapped in and walked away.

Down the corridor so many corpses lay one next to the other that Mangla Ram even forgot to weep.

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 Abdul Kadeer Mansuri

Abdul Kadeer Mansuri is seventy five years old. For the last twenty five years he has lived in constant pain, breathless and prone to panic. His wife, Gulshan, who also suffered from breathlessness, died five years ago, since when he has been cared for by his daughters.

Do you know what dahi-bara is? Of course you do. But I don’t mean that sort. I mean the sort I used to make, with real thick yoghurt and such tamarind sauce, sour as a judge’s hat. I made a good living from them – dahi-bara and kachori and samosa. I sold off a handcart near Laxmi Talkies. The clientele thereabouts was always hungry. We had a good life. Well off we hardly were, but there was enough to get by. Our house was up near Islami Gate, Shahjahanabad. Those were good days.

On the night of the gas I was at home with my wife and my son, Kalandar. He was thirteen. Munni, our daughter Munni was sixteen. She was also there. When the gas came a Hindu neighbour rushed in and said we must all run. Munni ran away with her. The rest of us stayed put. Why? Because the elders had always said that during a dust-storm or a sandstorm, a person should sit tight.

After my daughter had gone, we were trapped by the gas. We were coughing and choking. Water was running from our noses, our eyes were burning and swollen shut. I was in utter panic. All around we could hear screams and pandemonium. We knew people were dying out there and were afraid that Munni would be one of them.

The morning was the worst day of our lives, many of our friends and neighbours were dead, some in the street, some in their houses. Eventually Munni came home. We were so glad she had survived. We realised that we were all terribly hungry. There were some dahi baras there that I had made the day before, all waiting to be sold. We ate them. It was a bad mistake. All the metal pots in the house had turned green, even the milk. We should not have eaten the food. We started vomiting and had diarrhoea. My breathing problems started about one and half years after the gas and got worse and worse. I can truthfully say that I have never had a day’s health, or a day without pain, since that night.

I have taken treatment at government hospitals, but without much success. Ten years my wife Gulshan and I moved to Nawab colony – only later did we discover that the water there is poisoned by the same cursed factory. I stopped earning long ago, about 14 years back because I was just too ill to carry on. Five years ago Gulshan died and now I live with Munni. Sadly she is divorced. She and her daughter look after me and and even help me go to the toilet and all. Munni works washing dishes, but does not get regular work. Often there is no food in the house. Then the neighbours feed me and my daughter and grand daughter. I take medicines that I make myself – my uncle was a self-taught hakeem you know. When I’m bad I have to be taken to the hospital by my daughter, or my son or the neighbours. All the rest of the family are registered at Sambhavna, but it’s a bit too far for me.

I wish I could see their faces one last time. But it’s too late. One eye I lost to smallpox when I was small – all my life I was called ‘one-eye’ and would retort that in the land of the blind the one-eyed is king. But now I have lost the vision in my other eye and I no longer know in whose kingdom I live.
Brother, I am tired of being unwell. I hope that death will come soon and take me.

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 Aziza Sultan


Aziza Sultan now works at the Sambhavna Trust Clinic in Bhopal, run by survivors for survivors

I woke coughing badly. In the half light the room was filled with a white cloud. I heard a great noise of people shouting. ‘Run, run’. My eyes were burning. Each breath felt as if I was breathing in fire.

Mohsin, my baby son, began to cough. All our family were coughing and groaning. The house was already full of white clouds.

My mother-in-law said we should go to Hamidia hospital. We left the house. I was carrying Mohsin on my lap and holding my little daughter Ruby’s hand. My sister-in-law was holding two children and my father-in-law lifted his favourite grandson who was five years old.

We went out in our night clothes. Nothing else. It was very cold but we did not feel it. We didn’t even shut the house, nothing mattered but to run.

Outside in the lane, it appeared that a large number of people had passed that way. Shoes, slippers and shawls were strewn about. A thick white cloud enveloped everything, reducing the streetlights were just points of light. Our family got split up. One sister-in-law ran one way and the rest of us another. I saw lots and lots of people running, screaming for help, vomiting, falling down, unconscious.

We had gone about 500 metres when my father-in law spotted a truck and told us to climb on board. We couldn’t, but he was tall and strong so he got in. In the confusion instead of lifting up his grandson Mansoor, he grabbed another little boy who was running around on his own.

My mother-in-law was vomiting. She was a heart patient and Hamidia hospital was still two kilometres away, much of it uphill. Mohsin was still unconscious. Ruby was holding on to my kurta, she did not leave it once. We walked another 500 metres and came to the Bhopal Talkies crossing. Mohsin was being sick on me. Ruby was also vomiting. We had just one thought, to reach Hamidia. At the Bhopal Talkies crossing we all fell on the ground and just lay there. I was two months pregnant. I had a miscarriage right there in the middle of the street, my body was covered with blood. There was blood all over me. I couldn’t control my bowels and the faeces ran down my legs, mixing with the blood.

We couldn’t talk to each other or even see, our eyes were so bad.We were wondering what had gone wrong, who had done this. We had no idea that there was a gas leak from Union Carbide. We realised that if we remained where we were at the Bhopal Talkies crossing we would surely all die because we could see so many people lying on the ground who appeared to be dead.

Trucks overflowing with people were passing. We took the Saifia College road and walked about half a kilometer. There we managed to jump onto a moving vehicle, a large three-wheeler, going slowly because it was uphill. It was already crowded, full of people. By then I was covered with my own blood and faeces and vomit from my children. I fell on to some man’s lap inside the vehicle. The vehicle gave away at the top of the hill. It simply collapsed because there were too many people.

We started walking again and got to Hamidia hospital at about 2 or 2.30 am. Mohsin was unconscious Ruby was still clinging to my kurta. There was no one to help so we went on towards Kamla Park, as everyone was running that way. At Rani Hira Pati ka Mahal, the road was so thick with dead bodies that people had no choice but to step on them.

The park separating the upper and lower lakes was full of bodies lying on the ground. People from nearby areas were bringing out their quilts and bedcovers and covering people to protect them from the gas cloud.

All of us from our family, me, my sister-in-law, mother-in-law and our four children, collapsed onto a pile of dried leaves near a garbage dump and fell unconscious. I faintly recall that men came and lifted me and my children. They carried us to a better place and wrapped me up in a quilt.

We lay there for a long time, then heard this loud announcement from a public address system on a jeep. ‘We are in control of the gas leak from Union Carbide. Go back to your houses.’ By then it was dawn. One man about 35 years old took us to his home. Our eyes were closed and swollen. We were still feeling as if someone was trying to strangle us, breathing was extremely difficult.

This man gave me clothes to wear and hot water to wash myself. He made us tea but we couldn’t drink – our throats were on fire. Soon it was light, but we were helpless because of our eyes. We could not see. The man and his 18 year old son gave us a bottle of drinking water and led us back to our house.

When we got home we saw that the trees had shed their leaves, which looked as if they had been burnt. Milk had turned light green and we threw it away. All food left in the house was also thrown away.

So the night of terror ended, but as the sun rose, what not one of us knew, or could have realised, was what lay ahead. It never occurred to us that we would get no help, not from Union Carbide nor anywhere else, that the company would not be punished and that we would be left to live or die . ‘That night’ was over, but the dawn of death and suffering had arrived.

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 Kailash Pawar

And so our friends become yellowing newspaper stories

Kailash Pawar killed himself on March 24, 1989. Choosing to die by fire, he left a statement that he was immolating himself to remind a forgetful world of the continuing suffering of gas victims in Bhopal. It was a month after the ‘settlement’ with Union Carbide.

Kailash Pawar, in his early twenties, was one of the thousands living around the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, who were caught unawares by the lethal gas that spread around them on the night of December 2-3, 1984.

The silence from Union Carbide about the source and nature of the leak was so total that Kailash’s mother Jiyabai, thought it was tear gas, fired by the police to quell a riot somewhere in the city. Afraid for her son, she closed the door and sat outside, to stop him going out and anyone else coming in. The gas, however, entered through cracks and crevices in the flimsy structure. Kailash’s wife found her eyes burning intensely, he felt breathless and unwell. Opening the door, he found his mother unconscious on the doorstep. On his way to get help, Kailash fainted. He came to consciousness hours later, to find himself on a truck among a pile of dead bodies being driven to a mass pyre. The dead had bulging eyes, swollen faces, twisted limbs and sunken heads. For years they would come to him in nightmares. By then he wished he had burned.

His mother died the same day. Embittered by her loss, his father, totally disabled and unable to breathe without coughing, shut himself away and became a recluse.

Kailash Pawar was the victim first of MIC, then of the lack of knowledge about MIC (compounded by Carbide’s withholding of what knowledge it did have) and then of society’s failure to meet the needs of the victims of the world’s biggest industrial disaster. Overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of gas victims, doctors in Bhopal had to find cures for something they knew nothing about: the systemic devastation caused by MIC.

Like so many others, a series of treatments were tried out on Kailash Pawar. He was regarded initially as a star witness to the efficacy of sodium thiosulphate, because he showed an improvement after the injections. But it was short-lived. There were a series of hospitalisations, and frequent bouts of acute illness, mostly relating to his burnt-out lungs. In his interviews we hear the same notes of pain and helplessness over and over again.

‘My body is the support of my life. When my breathing is normal I feel like living. But when it becomes heavy, the thinking stops and absolute pain takes over. . . When my breathing becomes worse in winter, I take up to six injections a day. I have become worthless.’

His mother had lost her life trying unsuccessfully to save his. For what? His sense of worthlessness and his knowledge that his pain placed a strain on his wife preyed upon him. ‘My wife inspires me to live,’ he said. ‘She too must be tiring of me sometimes. But I am helpless.’

Many victims make up this one being: the man with the burnt-out lungs; the man for whom no treatment worked; the man who himself could no longer work; the man who was a burden on his family; the man for whom his mother lost her life; whose hopes were constantly raised and dashed. Redress is surely due on each of these counts.

Kailash’s wife: how many victims are in her person? She had to find a job to feed the family. The only work she could get was sewing, at Rs. 200 a month. With her MIC-injured eyes, sewing must have been agony. The gas leak imposed a triple burden on her. Her domestic housework doubled as she was the only woman left in the family; she had to earn; she had to nurse her husband and give him the will to live; she lived with the dreadful worry that even the subsistence needs of her children could not be met; and after her husband’s death, with the bitter knowledge that she had not been able to save him from the fiery pyre which had haunted his nightmares, and was his destiny.

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Laccho Bai

 

LACHHO BAI SITS IN THE DOOR OF HER HOUSE, cradling a garment that belonged to her daughter. She’s speaking, but what she’s saying, no one can tell. She breaks into song, gives a laugh. Sometimes, she cries.

‘She’s been thus for years,’ says a neighbour. ‘All day sitting in the doorway, holding that cloth, talking to God or whoever will listen.’

Hearing our voices, Laccho turns and surveys us with empty eyes, then gives a toothless and unexpectedly sweet smile. To look at you would think she was in her eighties, not forty years younger.

Laccho was born in Bhopal in 1958. At sixteen she was married to Laxmi Narayan, a hotel waiter. There was never enough money. Laccho earned a few extra rupees rolling leaf cigarettes but the couple were always hungry. Having no money to buy a hut, they built a shack of planks near the fine new American factory that had opened in Bhopal.

Laccho never knew much joy. She lost four children, each at less than a year. Her fifth child, a daughter, was two years old on the venomous night of December 2nd, 1984.

‘On that night there were four of us,’ says her husband. ‘My wife and myself, our little daughter and fate – we all fled together.’

The events of that night have often been described – the screams, panic, street lamps reduced to pinpoints by thick clouds of poison, dying figures stumbling past in a tobacco light – but we can never know what it was like to be there.

Those who survived find it too terrible to remember. ‘We ran,’ they will tell you. ‘The gas burned our eyes, we were choking. We fell. We knew we would die.’ But these stories are mere words, formulae that mask how it really was – the horror and deep fear – that people can’t bear to recall.

A study in 2000 by the Fact Finding Mission on Bhopal discovered that nearly six out of ten survivors had afterwards suffered significant losses of memory. When Mahesh Matthai’s film, Bhopal Express was screened in the city, the audience wept.

Laccho was heavily pregnant and could not run fast. In the crush she fell unconscious. A few months later she gave birth to a daughter. By this time both were too ill to work and fell into the most wretched poverty.

In 1995 Laccho lost her mind. ‘She strays in the alleys,’ says her husband. ‘Often improperly dressed. Some make fun of her, but most feel pity. So many here have lost their wits, living beings who are no longer aware of their own existence.’

A study by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences found that at least half of those exposed to Union Carbide’s gases suffered from mental health problems. That was in 1985. Since then, there have been no more government studies.

‘When we lost Laccho,’ says Laxmi, ‘our daughters, needing a mother’s care, had instead to look after her. Now they’re married I do my best to keep her clean and cook our meals. I can’t hear well, my sight blurs, my limbs are numb. I take any work I can get, yet I can’t fill our bellies.’

Laccho listens with a smile. Some trace of a forgotten life stirs in her, she feels the urge to offer us tea and gropes for a strainer and glass.

‘She can no longer see,’ says Laxmi sadly.
‘It’s the final cruelty. In June last year, she was betrayed by her sight. For her there’s no more day, just night everlasting. She sits at the threshold crying senseless words for this world with no one to feel her agony, other than me, and these eyes of mine are soft with sorrow.’

Story by Nisha Punekar

Mental illness is not recognised as a consequence of gas-exposure in Bhopal, sufferers get no compensation or treatment from the authorities. The government hospitals between them employ not a single psychiatrist. The only place where people suffering from mental problems can get help is at the Sambhavna Trust Clinic, run by survivors for survivors.

Radha Kumar
Adapted from an article in The Hindu, March 26, 1990

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Mehboob Bee

Jaan hai to jahaan hai. If we have life we have the world.
I CALL HER MY ADOPTED MOTHER, she says I am her daughter and that I’ll be there for her whenever she needs me. I just hope I will be, but these days I’m far away in England and I can’t stop worrying about her.

I first met Mehboob Bee when Tim and I were filming with the People’s Tribunal – this is when she lived in her old house, it was a lot better than the house she lives in now, but the moneylenders took it.

She had mortgaged it to get money for medicines for her sick husband, Chand Miya. He told her not to spend money oh him, she replied, ‘How can I not?’

Now she has moved to a corner of Qazi Camp to a house without a roof. In the monsoon the rain comes right in. The house is beside the stinking naala(an open sewage ditch). It was the only place she could find.

I went to see the Chief Minister to ask him for some money for a new roof. He gave me 500 rupees, so I just spat in the earth outside his house. After this Raghu Rai the photographer and some others paid for a new roof.

Mehboob Bi, she has the most wonderful presence, looks straight into your eyes like she knows the truth.

The film cameraman was being an asshole and Mehboob Bi began to cry. I went and sat next to her and hugged her and cried with her. She had just lost Chand, she was emotionally raw. You could see the pain and feel it in her.

Tim and I then took a French journalist to her house. In the one room where everyone slept there was a goat tied to the steel bed. When he offered her money she refused to take it, so he left it under her pillow.

Mehboob Bi was married to Chand Miya. She did not belong to Bhopal. When she arrived here life was really easy as Chand Miya was working for Union Carbide.

‘We were so happy. We used to be well off, but my kismet was written in Bhopal.’ Even today when she speaks of Chand tears roll from her eyes. She is so deeply wounded, so hurt. The gas has taken everything.

From the first time I saw her to the time when I left for England her face has weathered. Her daughter, the youngest one was so beautiful and wild, she looked a lot like her mother in the picture that Mehboob Bi shows so proudly of her and her husband. She showed us an album of her pictures from before her marriage. She was stunning, dressed in short kurtas with big goggles, two plaits and curls plastered to the sides of her cheeks.

One of her daughters said ‘Ammi looks like Mala Sinha.’

‘No,’ said the other one, ‘she’s like Sadhna.’ (Both Indian film stars.)

‘Chal hat pagli ladki’ . Go on with you silly girl. That is what she said to her daughter with a coy smile.

When her daughters were small and there was no food Mehboob Bi used to give them water at night to fill their stomachs. ‘Afterwards I came to know that in many places the wells have been poisoned by that factory, the same cursed place that tried to kill us all with gas.’

So many years after the disaster Mehboob Bi suffers from serious head aches, often faints and gets very high temperatures for which there is no clear or obvious cause.

‘I am waiting, daughter,’ she tells me. ‘I am just waiting to go. I’m so tired, but who will look after these children then? The debt collectors will tear them apart, so the least I can do is spare them from debt before I go.

‘My husband warned me how dangerous the chemicals were. If by mistake you put your hand into them your hand would dissolve. The day after the tragedy when we came back home our utensils were covered with a green coating. Chand Miya did not let us come in to the house he cleaned everything up, washed every corner of the house before he let us come in.

‘The days just before the disaster were the last few days I saw him happy. Our miseries began on that night. All of us had breathed the gas, but he most of all. When he got really ill and could no longer work . . . I . . . we ran short of money and I started work for the first time. He apologised to me for
putting me through this.

‘I said jaan hai to jahaan hai, if we have life we have the world.

‘He often told me not to spend the money on him and his illness. “I will die,” he said, “don’t waste your money on me.” ‘And he did. He left me alone.’

Narrated by Farah Edwards, a Bhopali woman who met her husband Tim when he cycled from Brighton to Bhopal to raise funds for the Bhopal Medical Appeal.

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