In a park in downtown Bhopal, India, a group congregates every Saturday afternoon. Most are older women wrapped in saris. Many are widows shunned as bearers of bad luck. They gather weekly to give testimonies about one of the world's most horrific man-made disasters -- a tragedy some would sooner forget.
After she filmed the weekly rally, crowds surged around Lindalee Tracey, a veteran Canadian documentary filmmaker, writer and journalist. "They came up to me and -- these are very modest women -- they would show me things. I would see cysts and this and that. I don't know if those things were because of the gas. But they think it is."
The women are among the hundreds of thousands in Bhopal afflicted in some way by the massive chemical leak that spread through the city from the Union Carbide chemical plant two decades ago. They are also among those desperately trying to prove that the leak has had lasting, disastrous health effects and to tell anybody who will listen what is still happening in Bhopal.
Although the Indian government has issued special health cards for up to 500,000 residents of the city affected by the disaster, it has tried to stymie research on the lasting health effects, because it doesn't want to appear litigious and anti-business to foreign companies, Tracey argues. Meanwhile, Union Carbide, the U.S. company which is now part of Dow Chemical, considers the matter closed.
Yet, standing in the park, "I would just be bowled over by the hundreds of women coming up to me, one after another, grabbing my hand and saying, 'Please look, look.' It was horrible." In Toronto to speak about her film Bhopal: The Search for Justice (made with fellow documentary-makers Peter Raymont and Harold Crooks), Tracey at this point hung her head in dejection.
It's still not even known, she said, what happened on the night of Dec. 2, 1984, when deadly gas spilled into the teeming, largely Muslim city, killing 15,000 people, or what else was in the chemical cocktail composed primarily of the pesticide gas, methyl isocyanate.
It's as if the health effects of Hiroshima or Nagasaki were never studied and were, in fact, deliberately ignored for business and political reasons, Tracey says. That's the central point of the film, which is now being shown at special screenings across Canada and on American university campuses to mark the 20th anniversary of the disaster. It also will be aired Dec. 9 on CBC-TV's The Nature of Things.
Because so little hard research exists on the lingering effects of the chemical leak, the few scientists studying the Bhopal disaster "are left with jars of pickled fetuses and are hanging on to them desperately as proof" of birth defects, Tracey said. "But so little else has been done."
As she described it, Bhopal today is a city of hospitals with long, snaking lines of people needing care. Before shooting the documentary, she spent more than a week, at considerable cost given the film's tight budget, getting acquainted with people in the bastis, or the slums near the abandoned Union Carbide plant.
The rusting plant, with its piecemeal construction of outdoor metal platforms, girders, pipes and corroded tanks, has never been properly cleaned up or dismantled. According to Tracey, a concrete wall was being built around the plant to ward off camera lenses, as if preparing for the media attention tied to the 20th anniversary of the accident.
At the time of the leak, it was reported that 3,000 people died and a few thousand more suffered side effects. In fact, it's now estimated that 15,000 died within two months and hundreds of thousands more are believed to have been hurt by inhaling the gas, Tracey said.
Even a non-scientist visiting Bhopal is immediately aware of the disaster's effects, Tracey said, "just by walking around and seeing people in their homes, with somebody sick, lying in a corner of a home under a blanket, dying of who knows what."
Of course, the gas did not discriminate between gender, age or class. Middle-class families have the same lingering health effects as the poor, such as children born with fingers fused together and other deformities.
The film includes harrowing news footage from the time of the disaster, with people near death in overrun hospitals and children being buried. It concentrates on the efforts of a few scientists, lawyers, a particularly determined local journalist and some foreign supporters (such as U.S. Senator Jon Corzine) who are trying to shed light on what exactly happened, in hard scientific and legal terms, that night in Bhopal 20 years ago.
Some of this urgency to get to the truth is due to the fact that the bank accounts from the original settlement between Union Carbide and the government of India have now been opened to provide restitution for sufferers, Tracey said. But the onus is still on doctors and lawyers to prove that long-term health problems are linked to the disaster, she added.
Shaking her head in disbelief, Tracey said how moved she was by the hospitality of ordinary Bhopal residents and how, as a woman, she was able to talk more intimately with women and children about how they are still coping with the accident. But it's an accident which should never have happened.
"In Bhopal, that plant, according to the rules and regulations of Bhopal the city and [the Indian state of]Madhya Pradesh, should not have been there. It goes against the rules because it was a populated area," Tracey said, still shaking her head.