South Africa: Bhopal Tragedy Lives on at Earth Summit

BOMBAY -- An exhibition of black-and-white photographs capturing the suffering of victims of the world's worst industrial accident is set to open in Johannesburg on Tuesday to coincide with the Earth Summit.

Shot by Indian photojournalist Raghu Rai, the 55 pictures recall the disaster in the central Indian city of Bhopal, where more than 3,000 people were killed and tens of thousands injured in a poison-gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in 1984.

Representatives of nearly 200 governments are meeting at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which opened in Johannesburg on Monday, to seek a U.N. blueprint on slashing poverty while pursuing economic growth that does not damage the environment.

"What I find shocking and surprising is that even after 18 long years, people are still suffering," Rai told Reuters.

"The tragedy is still engraved in their faces. When you see such intensity in their eyes, you can't remain a silent observer."

Rai is well known for his December 1984 photograph of a hand scraping sand near the head of a partially buried baby in Bhopal. His latest pictures, taken earlier this year, are no less poignant.

Picture after picture shows vacant, haunted faces, chronically ill men and women and pain-racked victims dying a slow, painful death.

"Supporters of the Bhopal gas victims are in Johannesburg to highlight environmental crimes, whose impact is no less significant than terrorist attacks," said Ganesh Nochur, campaigns director of Greenpeace India, which commissioned Rai to take the pictures.

Greenpeace and victims' groups put the death toll at 8,000 in the first three days after tonnes of the methyl isocyanate leaked from the Bhopal factory in the early hours of December 3, 1984. They say thousands more have died since the disaster.

Union Carbide has said it compensated victims by settling personal injury and related claims in 1989, when the company paid $470 million to the Indian government on behalf of the victims.

Rai's exhibition travels to the United States and Switzerland after closing in Bombay over the weekend. It opens on Tuesday at Johannesburg's Sandton Mall, opposite a summit convention centre.

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