Sun, Jul 24, 2005 - Page 17 News List

'Let us live our lives here in peace'

Former leprosy patients are being forced out of their homes and relocated to a hospital that fails to cater for their needs

By Ho Yi  /  STAFF REPORTER

Leprosy has left most of the cured patients with irreversible physical disabilties.

PHOTOS: LO PEI-DER, TAIPEI TIMES

In a prefabricated shed crammed with cooking utensils, a TV set, personal items and a single bed, a former leprosy patient named Chen Zai-tien (陳再添) used his claw-like fingers to maneuver the electric wheelchair and find a comfortable spot in the room. He started talking about his fellow residents at the Happy Life Sanatorium

(樂生療養院).

"Most of the residents have lived here for more than 50 years now. Lots of us were sent here in our teens or 20s and have been cut off from society ever since. Now the average age of the residents is 75. This is our home. All we ask is that the government can leave us along and let us live our lives here in peace.''

Chen is one of over 300 former lepers living at the sanatorium. The colony has been a haven for them for 75 years, but is set to be demolished to make room for the Taipei Mass Rapid Transit system's Sinjhuang line. The residents of Happy Life Sanatorium are now being told they will have to relocate to the eighth-floor of Huilung Community Hospital, built on part of the original site of the sanatorium.

Supported by several advocate groups such as the Taiwan Association of Human Rights and Taiwan Youth Union for Lepers' Rights, the former lepers have petitioned government agencies to stay, including the Taipei County Government, the Legislative Yuan, the Council for Cultural Affairs (CAA) and Executive Yuan.

So far, their efforts to remain at Happy Life Sanatorium are foundering and the relocation plan is slated to go ahead on Aug. 15.

Happy Life Sanatorium in Danfeng Neighborhood, Sinjhuang Township (新莊鎮), Taipei County, was built in 1930 under Japanese colonial rule as the first and the only public leper colony in Taiwan. The Japanese regime imposed a segregation policy on the patients. They deprived lepers of the freedom to move, marry or have offspring. In the 1950s, new treatments for leprosy became available in Taiwan and leprosy, also know as Hansen's Disease, was found to be a curable chronic illness, with a low likelihood of transmission.

In 1994, the health department ceded the 17-hectare property belonging to the leper colony to the Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation for the construction of the Sinjhuang MRT Line. It was intended to house the former lepers in a modern regional hospital, though the residents were excluded from the decision-making process. Many residents didn't even know their homes were sold to the MRT until the construction work began in 2002.

``The authority never secured consent from the residents. They were never asked if they wanted to move or not. They were just told to leave the houses they'd lived in for decades. And all the buildings were torn down in three days,'' said Lai Ze-jun (賴澤君), a graduate student volunteer of Taiwan Youth Union for Lepers' Rights, referring to the first stage of demolition work that took place in 2002 and 2003.

According to interviews compiled by the Union, many of the former lepers were forced to move out of the original sanator-ium composed of elegant Japanese buildings to prefabricated sheds or temporary settlements nearby. Many of the residents lived with their families, who are not neces-sarily leprosy patients. The family members were offered NT$10,000 in compensation to move out.

A few residents were paralyzed in accidents during the relocation and one man had to have one of his legs amputated because the move worsened his leg condition. A blind patient fell to death shortly after the move simply because he couldn't "touch" his way through his new environment.

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