The Key to a World without Nuclear Weapons: Appeal from the Marshall Islands, Part 4

Handing down memories of the nuclear tests and radiation exposure

“Is there anyone who would like to live in the United States in the future?” When Jebran Ned, 59, a homeroom teacher, posed this question to her fifth grade students, 13 out of 18 in the classroom raised their hands. The school is the only school on Enewetak Island, part of the Marshall Islands, and has an enrollment of some 190 students ranging from kindergarteners to junior high school students in their second year. Rebecca Kijenmej, 11, said that she would like to go to college there to become a pilot. Many other students joined in to share their dreams of going to the United States, too.

Under the Compact of Free Association that was concluded with the United States, the people of the Marshall Islands are entitled to emigrate to the United States without a visa. In addition to enrolling in American universities, a number of young people go there to work. Because these young people also include youth from Enewetak Island, a recent concern is that it will become harder to hand down memories of the damage caused by the nuclear tests to succeeding generations.

At the island’s school, information about the nuclear tests carried out on Enewetak Atoll, along with the resulting environmental contamination and the suffering of the people on Ujelang Atoll to which the residents of Enewetak Atoll were forced to move, is taught mainly to the students in higher grades. Ms. Ned stresses that it is important for the students to know why they have to eat canned food. She believes that knowing all the facts surrounding the nuclear tests will help them be prepared for health problems they themselves may experience in the future. However, most of the people who were born in 1980, when the residents returned from Ujelang Atoll to Enewetak Island, and onwards don’t talk much about the history of the nuclear tests, and if they do, they simply say that they learned only a little about it at school.

On Rongelap Atoll, where 86 residents (including four fetuses) were exposed to the “ashes of death,” or radioactive fallout, from the 1954 “Bravo” hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll, people’s level of interest in this subject varies depending on the generation.

Lemeyo Abon, 76, who lives in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, witnessed the detonation of the bomb while she was preparing breakfast. She was exposed to the “ashes of death” and suffered diarrhea, hair loss, and other acute symptoms of radiation sickness. The residents made an emergency evacuation on a U.S. battleship soon after the explosion. In 1957, when the United States declared Rongelap Atoll to be safe, former residents returned to their homes. However, many of them eventually suffered cancers and other health problems caused by residual radiation and left the island once again in 1985. That year Ms. Abon had her thyroid removed due to cancer. Memories of the radiation exposure have been etched into her body as well.

She still holds a deep distrust and fear of the U.S. government. She hopes to return to the island, but is very hesitant to do so, because if she returns, she is afraid that her children and grandchildren will return with her and may also eventually be exposed to radioactive fallout. Some residents try to suppress their burning desire to return to their homeland, but their children and grandchildren think that it is the local government that decides whether or not it is safe to return to the island. The younger generation’s sense of involvement in the islands’ issues tends to be weak.

Rosania Bennett, 46, a lawyer from Majuro, says that her generation and generations after know that nuclear tests were carried out in the Marshall Islands but don’t know exactly what happened. Out of a sense of urgency over the situation, she became determined to serve as a bridge between the generations and subsequently founded a non-government organization, REACH-MI, in 2015. About 50 members of the group, from preteens to people in their 40s, have been interviewing residents who were exposed to radioactive fallout throughout the islands, including atolls for which the United States does not acknowledge that its residents were exposed to radiation from the nuclear tests. The organization will soon hold workshops for young people and children and prepare educational materials for schools.

The interviews don’t always go smoothly because many residents feel that they were abandoned and therefore have stayed silent about their experiences. The organization faces many challenges, such as securing funding to sustain their activities. Despite this, Ms. Bennett maintains her strong determination to talk to younger generations about the reality of the nuclear tests and the damage that resulted and increase public awareness of that damage. She also hopes to eventually get the United States to accept responsibility for the damage it caused. These efforts are likely to raise the momentum for discouraging all nations from using nuclear weapons again.

“No more.” Their slogan conveys the same desire of the A-bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who have long called for “no more” victims of nuclear weapons.

(Originally published on February 17, 2017)