July 26, 2002
0606 IST

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American joins Bhopal victims' fight against Union Carbide

A Correspondent in New York

Thousands of miles from Bhopal, where leakage of the toxic methyl isocynate from the Union Carbide's pesticide manufacturing plant on December 3, 1984, killed thousands of people, an American woman has joined the survivors in their battle for justice.

Diane Wilson, a shrimp boat captain from Sea Drift, a coastal city on the San Antonio Bay, Texas, is on a hunger strike outside the local Dow plant.

In February, 2001, the Dow Chemical Company bought over Union Carbide Corporation.

Wilson, 52, a mother of five, kicked off relay fasts worldwide on July 17 when she undertook a hunger strike, which she says will continue till the Bhopal gas victims get justice.

Diane Wilson's car parked outside the Dow plant in Sea DriftFor the past few days she has been parking her pick-up truck in front of the gate of the Dow plant and distributing flyers carrying information about the Bhopal tragedy to the workers.

The struggle for justice for Bhopal victims once again came into media focus on June 28 when two survivors of the disaster, Tara and Rashida, and activist Sathyu Sarangi, began a fast outside Parliament House, reports from India have said.

They were protesting against the Indian government's move to dilute the case against former Carbide CEO Warren Anderson, a release posted on the website of the National Campaign for Justice in Bhopal said.

The protesters were also demanding that Dow take up the liability of Union Carbide's actions in India and provide healthcare and rehabilitation to the victims.

The two women were hospitalised on July 16 while Sarangi broke his fast on July 17 following the government's assurance that money meant for gas victims will not be distributed in non-gas affected wards, reports said.

"People need to know about the case and be outraged. That is what I am working on," Wilson said over the phone from Sea Drift. Diane Wilson

A fourth-generation fisherwoman, she began her struggle against Union Carbide 13 years ago when she found that her tiny county, Calhoun, was the number one in the United States in terms of toxic disposal. "The information galvanized me and I called for a meeting," she says.

However, there was a huge backlash - politicians, plant managers, county commissioners, city council people - were telling her to call it off, 'to be a good citizen', she says.

Since 1989, Wilson has taken on companies such as DuPont and Formosa Plastics, seeking reduction in toxic water discharge. She once attempted to sink her shrimp boat on top of a reportedly illegal discharge to mark her protest, she says.

She ruffled many feathers in the process. "Once a helicopter landed in my front yard and someone shot at the house, my mother-in-law and killed two dogs," she says. "Twice, my shrimp boat was sabotaged."

But Wilson loved the water too much to give up her fight. "I've been on the water since I was probably eight. It is a part of me," she says. "To give up the bay would be like giving up my child."

Her involvement with the Bhopal tragedy victims began after a meeting with activist Ward Morehouse.

"In 1992, I went to Bombay (now Mumbai) from Bhopal to attend a peoples' tribunal, where I met the survivor groups," she says adding she was the only American to show up.

"Later, we were all sitting in this circle and they (the women) wanted to put bracelets (bangles) on my hands. But my hands are so big that they kept breaking," she says, laughing. "I have this long-standing link with them."

On her visit to India, she felt as if she never left home. "Bombay's got the same climate as Texas, the blooming bougainvilleas...I was amazed," she says.

Recently, after the hunger strike began in India, Wilson was reading the emails sent to her from Delhi.

"I came across the survivor's poem - Fire a blowtorch at my eyes, pour acid down my throat.... choke my baby to death in front of me, show me her struggles as she dies. That just hit me," she says. "I felt compelled to do something. And the one thing I can do is put myself out there just as they've been putting themselves out there for 18 years."

Wilson takes along printouts of emails sent to her from India and reads them whenever it gets tough. That keeps her going.

She says her protest will continue until justice is done. "I'm going to end the fast when the people of Bhopal are satisfied that justice is coming to them. I am willing to stay on," she says. "I truly believe you have to put pressure on these companies; you almost have to twist their arm."

She remembers when she was going to Bombay (now Mumbai) from Bhopal, a man started running after the bus. "He passed a handkerchief to me through the window," she says.

Inside, there were about 10 pictures of little babies, dead, and laid out on a sheet. "He had been carrying those pictures since the accident in '84," she says. "Being a mother, I understand the extent of the suffering. The world has to unite against this atrocity."

Wilson, who has embraced a non-violent mode of protest, draws strength from Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy. "In one of his quotes, he says - anybody can do what he wants. It just takes commitment," she points out, paraphrasing. "The things I've read about him say he transformed the enemy," she says.

Pictures By Kathleen Yarborough

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