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Abertura logo > The Story > Biographies > Wohab and Sabitri

Wohab and Sabitri: A Former Muslim Terrorist and a Hindu Nurse Work Together

A Thousand Suns
This page is an excerpt from Chapter 15 of A Thousand Suns. Half of the royalties of this book go directly to the children of Calcutta.

« A small dispensary - created in a particularly underprivileged area of the Ganges delta by a former Muslim terrorist whom Gaston had won over to charitable work - was short of everything. Almost all of the hundreds of skeletal people who laid siege to it each day went away without treatment, medication or food supplies. Yet the eradication of tuberculosis had been proclaimed "a national priority" by the Indian government.

Epidemiological studies had established that a third of the country's inhabitants were afflicted with this scourge, primarily because of malnutrition and lack of hygiene. In the countryside surrounding the Ganges delta, the figure increased to one in two people.

In the absence of any medical infrastructure, the disease created an ideal opportunity for healers, sorcerers, and country pharmacists selling potions and pills stolen from hospitals in Calcutta. To buy such medicines, patients had to sell their crops, then their cow, their fields, their huts and finally trek off on foot to Calcutta. No hospital would take them. When the "red fever" struck, it meant certain and swift death.

Garlanded according to Indian custom at the gate of the TB medical center they help support, the Lapierres are welcomed by the center’s Hindu president, Sabitri, and Muslim director Wohab. The Lapierres have been made honorary citizens of Calcutta in recognition of their humanitarian efforts.

The former terrorist's dispensary was established to combat the death rate. But it needed a full time doctor and nurses, a pathology laboratory, a microscope, a radiology unit and stocks of antibiotics. It needed a concrete building to withstand the onslaughts of the monsoon and the scorching sun, and the pillaging of thieves for whom an ordinary box of aspirin tablets was prize booty. My wife and I were able to satisfy all these emergency requirements in a few months. I went myself to negotiate the purchase of radiology equipment from the Siemens' representative in Calcutta. The arrival of this ultra-sophisticated apparatus in the far reaches of the countryside provoked the sort of stupor a UFO falling out of the sky might have occasioned. For the X-ray machine to function, unfortunately it needed electricity, a lot of electricity. That rural area being as yet devoid of any such advantage, I besieged the office of the Bengal Minister for Energy to ask for a priority cable.

Thanks to this X- ray machine in the SHIS dispensary in Banghur, thousands patients are diagnosed each year with tuberculosis, a curable disease that is, nevertheless, India's number 1 killer.

My efforts became so bogged down in bureaucratic obstacles that I had to resort to a weapon Gandhi used against the British. I threatened the minister that I would call a press conference to announce that the author of Freedom at Midnight and The City of Joy was backing his humanitarian appeal with a hunger strike outside the door to his office. Three days later, a squad of workmen were planting the first posts and stretching out the cables. In ten days the line was in place. We still, however, needed the authorities to supply it with electricity. Another threat brought the first kilowatts, a victory that Wohab, the former Muslim terrorist, and Sabitri, the young Hindu woman who ran the dispensary, celebrated by doing a first X-ray. The resulting image showed the bones of their four hands grasping each other by the wrist, a symbol of sacred union which they made into the logo of their aid committee.

Ten years and twenty thousand X-rays later, tuberculosis had disappeared from twelve hundred villages in the region, and a hundred thousand sick people were cured. Fifteen tons of vitamin enriched flour was distributed; five hundred and forty-one drinking water wells and nearly a thousand latrines were dug.

The Lapierres and former Muslim terrorist Mohammed Wohab sit in front of the tree they planted in the courtyard of the Banghur dispensary where 300,000 patients are treated every year.

When they inaugurated the dispensary's new installations, Wohab and Sabitri planted a young acacia tree in the courtyard. At the foot of it they placed a plaque with its name. They called it Dominiques' Tree. From then on the acacia became a personality in our lives. It sent us a postcard regularly. "Big brother and big sister Dominique, I have been well watered," said one of them. "I have grown more than forty centimeters. Soon I shall be able to provide the sick with shade. Come back soon! I'm pining for you." »