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25 years of spirit and survival

Laura Moye and Alka Roy
July 2009
25 years of spirit and survival

Young women from Bhopal make their Atlanta stop during a U.S. tour demanding justice in the infamous Union Carbide tragedy.

On May 18 and 19, 2009, Atlanta hosted Safreen Khan and Sarita Malviya, two young women from Bhopal, India. They spoke about how their families and communities continue to suffer because of the poisonous gas leak that devastated the town of Bhopal, over a decade before they were even born.

Only 16 years old, these young women left their families in Bhopal to come on this rigorous 22 city North American tour. Atlanta was the 17th city on their stop. The girls had been shuttling from city to city talking to students, activists, professionals and elected officials about the catastrophe that is still going on in Bhopal.

Around midnight on December 2, 1984, 27 tons of toxic gas leaked out of the Union Carbide chemical plant. The half a million people who were exposed to the deadly chemicals continue to suffer. Tragically, the contamination left behind by Union Carbide (now owned by Dow Chemical), in the world’s most toxic and devastating industrial disaster to date, has seeped into the ground and the water causing harm to a whole new generation of Bhopalis.

Since then, 20,000 people have died and 120,000 to 150,000 people have been left chronically ill. Safreen and Sarita spoke to the audience in Atlanta about how they, their families and their communities are still struggling to get justice almost 25 years later.

The Atlanta leg of the tour was hosted by the Atlanta chapter of Association for India’s Development (A.I.D.) in partnership with Amnesty International’s Southern Regional Office. The event, held at the Friend’s School of Atlanta, was well-attended. People stayed late into the evening engrossed and moved by Safreen’s and Sarita’s stories, asking them what they could do and brainstorming ideas to help. The next day the girls had a chance to meet kids their age when they spoke to the students at the Paideia School.

Safreen spoke of her parents, who were exposed to the toxic gas leak and are still suffering from health consequences. Her father, Jabar, suffers from chronic heart problems, her mother, Nafeesa, feels a burning sensation in her eyes and pain in her limbs. Her brother, who is 22, battles with breathlessness. Since the gas disaster she and her sister and two brothers have been living in the water contaminated area. Safreen emphasized that this was not just the story of her family, but thousands of families who continue to live and suffer in the contaminated areas.

Sarita spoke of the children born with cleft lips, joined fingers and other congenital malformations and how people around her complained of aching joints, breathlessness, and chronic fatigue. Sarita herself suffers from constant headaches, her hands are ice cold and her palms sweat profusely. She said she only understood the cause of these problems once her mother got involved with the campaign for justice in Bhopal.

Sarita and Safreen, along with other affected children, decided to start their own group called Children against Dow-Carbide. They insist that Dow must take on the liabilities of Union Carbide and address the devastation and their legal responsibilities in Bhopal.

“Bhopal is a story about hope and courage, not just despair,” said Rachna Dingra, an International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) volunteer who has spent the last six years in Bhopal. She was travelling with Sarita and Safreen and translating their message into English for audiences.

The girls’ message tied to that of Champa Devi Shukla, a leader of the grassroots struggle in Bhopal against Dow Chemical (Union Carbide) who came to Atlanta on a similar tour in 2003. She was in Bhopal the night of the terrible gas leak in 1984. In addition to losing family members to the disaster, she continues to suffer from chronic health problems. She is a symbol of the perseverance and courage that survivors in Bhopal have shown for the last 25 years. Leading up to the 25th anniversary on December 3rd and on this tour a new generation of survivors and advocates have embarked on building international support for their struggle—a struggle that they know they must win.

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