Madeleine Johnson was a featured speaker during the opening session at the Pacific Resilience Partnership meeting in Suva in May. Below are highlights from her speech.
My Grandma was born in 1926 in Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. She was only 20 years old when her family and community were evacuated in order to make way for nuclear tests. They were told they could return within a few years once the testing was completed. Sadly, 73 years later they still have not returned to their island home.
Our grandma,who the family calls bubu, is 95 years old today and she is the last living survivor from the original 167 people who were evacuated from Bikini Atoll. Bubu Lirok often tells the story of how peaceful and contended life was. How life was simple but happy on Bikini Atoll.
Bubu also tells a different sad story. A story of how they endured hardship and starvation. For it was during the first two years spent on another smaller island that they started having difficulties they had never encountered before. One particular memory still stands vividly in her mind even today. Bubu explained, “I remember when we ran out of food and were starving, I would wake up feeling weak and dizzy and shockingly unable to stand. Sometimes I would have no feeling in my hands and I had to watch helplessly as we all became so very thin and sick. We had no meat on our legs and arms and our muscles were worn thin from the lack of activity. Sadly, an older relative died of being so horribly malnourished.”
She recalls how the children would cry during the day. And how the sound of crying of these babies made the adults suffer, but there was nothing to do except to endure the pain along with them. There was an awkwardness of adjusting to their newfound environment that left them feeling weak, exhausted and deeply confused.
This same crisis followed them when they were finally placed on another island where they are still at today. And after all these trials and tribulations that has happened to them, they are still fighting for justice for future generations. Stories and experiences about their exile are passed on to younger generations through elders like bubu so they are not forgotten. Sharing these experiences makes each generation more resilient.
For those of you who are not aware of the Nuclear Legacy in the Marshall Islands, between 1946 and 1958 the US conducted and detonated a total of 67 nuclear bombs in and around the land, air, and water of Marshall Islands, specifically on the atolls of Bikini and Enewetak. 23 of the 67 nuclear bombs, along with the most powerful hydrogen bomb codename Bravo, were detonated on Bikini Atoll. The Bravo shot was a 15 megaton hydrogen bomb more than 1,000 times as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima that ended World War 2.
The powerful explosion evaporated three small islands, one of them belonging to grandma’s family. All that is left of the vaporized islands is a gaping, blue sea-filled crater a mile wide and 200 feet deep, a physical scar left over from the nuclear testings.
The atomic experimentation conducted on Bikini Atoll has done tremendous drastic changes in not just the people of Bikini’s social, political and economic daily lives but the whole Marshall Islands as well. Recent studies and reports have shown that radiation exposure was received on every inhabited island in the Marshall Islands. Today, people of Bikini and the whole Marshall Islands still deal with medical problems, environmental contamination and displacement all from the nuclear legacy.
And it is with these issues that REACH- MI is trying to find ways to better understand how to address and have answers. REACH -MI is a non government organization. Our main purpose is to provide information, spread awareness and explore ways to address unresolved nuclear issues. We do this to improve community conditions and people’s lives in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
We’ve interviewed the survivors and the experts. To share what we’ve learned, we’ve joined walkathons, we went to Japan on the Peace Boat, we’ve been in documentaries and radio talk shows, we’ve hosted community movie nights, and just recently a large concert that brought the community together through music. We also have a facebook page and a twitter account. And just last month, we had a booth teaching young children about peace through art at the Early Childhood Development Program.
This year, one of our goals is to work closely with our National Nuclear Commission by collaborating on communications workshops so that all RMI nuclear related NGOs have the same message when speaking to the media and public.
Another goal is to do a Knowledge Aptitude Practice survey on the community in the RMI and abroad to give us insights on how much the community knows about our nuclear legacy. We plan on doing a follow-up sometime next year to see how effective our efforts have been.
We believe the most important thing we can do is spread awareness and the most important audience is the younger generation. So they know their history and their role in the country and in the greater Pacific region.
To me resilience means being able to talk about your problems, it’s about finding support within your family and community, and it’s about turning negatives into positives. I believe my country is more resilient today because of its nuclear legacy. With support from my family and community I will continue talk about this important issue so that it doesn’t happen again to other innocent people.
Madeleine Johnson is a member of the Radiation Exposure Awareness Crusaders for Humanity – Marshall Islands (REACH-MI). She is based in Majuro.