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Marshallese live on nuclear testing range

Pamela Miller — April 1984

The United States bombed Japan twice with atomic weapons during World War II*.* Between 1948 and 1956 the United States bombed Bikini and Enewetak Atolls in the Marshall Islands sixty-six times with nuclear and hydrogen weapons. Six islands were vaporized, others have been severely contaminated with nuclear fallout, and the people are now suffering from radiation-related diseases and birth defects.

Speaking in Toronto on ‘Tuesday March 20th, 1984, Darlene Keju-Johnson of the Marshall Islands called her people the first victims of World War III, and made a plea for medically-trained volunteers to assist in the independent health survey being organized for the islands.

The Marshall Islands lie in Micronesia in the South Pacific. Since 1947, the US has administered Micronesia under a UN strategic trust in which it promises to protect the health of the inhabitants and safeguard ~ their lands and resources. Keju-Johnson says the US has betrayed this trust.

As the government was signing the UN agreement in 1947” the military were evacuating the Marshallese from their islands as a safety precaution for the first nuclear test. But these most rudimentary precautions were ignored in 1954 when the US exploded the world’s largest hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll. Downwind from the fifteen-megaton blast hundreds of Marshallese, twenty-eight American weathermen and twenty-three Japanese fishermen were contaminated. The US government maintained that the contamination had been accidental due to an unexpected shift in the winds. However, for the entire week prior to the test, the weather conditions had been alarming, with winds blowing east across the inhabited islands.

A few hours after the explosion, snow-like radioactive ash began falling. At Rongelap, one hundred miles from the bomb site, the ash was two inches deep by evening. Since they had not been warned of any danger, children played in the ashes. Within hours, people were suffering from nausea and diarrhoea.

On March 2, 1954, radiation monitoring personnel arrived on the island, measured the radiation and told the people not to drink the water. The people were never told what to expect from radiation poisoning. Eventually the people from Rongelap were relocated to Kwajalein Atoll. …

When the scientists allowed the Rongelap people to return home in 1957, three years after the Bravo test, they observed:

Even though the radioactive contamination of the people of Rongelap Island is considered perfectly safe for human habitation. The levels of activity are higher than those found in other inhabited locations of the world. The habitation of these people an the island will afford most valuable ecological radiation data on human beings.

133 Since returning home, the Rongelap people have developed alarming rates of thyroid cancer over 70% of the children require thyroid operations. Leukaemia, cataracts, growth retardation and severe birth defects also plague the people. Island women speak of babies born with horns, and with “no place to go to the bathroom.” They tell of the “jellyfish babies” – no legs, no arms, no faces, their bodies breathing and covered with hair.

“We believe we are being treated as guinea pigs,” says Keju-Johnson, who has had two operations to remove tumours and admits she is frightened of having deformed children.

An American medical team visits the Islands twice a year to make limited tests of the people. But they refuse to explain the health problems to the people or to test the children because they maintain that there will be no long-term effects. Unlike American citizens, the Marshallese have no right to their own health records.

The Marshallese urgently need independent medical treatment. At the request of the Marshall Island government, Sr. ‘Rosalie Bertell has initiated the Pacific Island Assessment Project, which hopes to return to the Islands in the summer of 1984 with teams of health workers to assist the people.

“It took thirty years for the people to have their feet get hurt, to get really upset,” says Keju-Johnson. But now they are beginning to organize. The people of Belau endorsed ,a nuclear-free constitution in overwhelming numbers, which would prohibit American military activity on their island. At Kwajalein, the people gathered their belongings and occupied some of the restricted islands for four months in the summer of 1982 to- protest the military presence on the island. Recently, the Americans have begun testing the MX missiles at Kwajalein.

These abuses of the Marshall Islands are common to other islands in the South Pacific, which are used to test weapons by the French, -Chinese and Russians, as well as the United States. In fact, because of the frequency of missile tests in the South Pacific, Japan has re-routed its commercial air travel. Now Japan is surveying the deep Marianas Trench for a site for an experimental nuclear waste dump.

As one of the Pacific Rim nations, it is incumbent upon Canada to support the efforts of the Marshallese towards a nuclear-free Pacific.

For more information about the Pacific Island Assessment Project, contact Sister Rosalie Bertell at the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice, 947 Queen. S~. E., Toronto On. Phone: xxx-xxxx.