Visit to Rongelap Island:

Nuclear Refugees of 1954 Bikini Test Seeking to Return to Their Home

Yayoi Tsuchida
National Staff Member of Japan Gensuikyo

   From January 7 through January 19, 2001, the Japan Gensuikyo sent a delegation to the Marshall Islands for friendship and solidarity with the Rongelap people.  The delegation for the first time visited and studied the ongoing cleanup work of the Rongelap Island, the main island of the Rongelap Atoll heavily contaminated from the March 1 1954 hydrogen bomb test conducted at the neighboring Bikini Atoll.  At Majuro, the capital of the Republic, the delegation and Rongelap leaders together announced the start of a project for construction of the Rongelap Peace Memorial Museum.  They also held a meeting with leaders from Bikini and other atolls that suffered from the same nuclear test.  On Mejatto Island, where many Rongelap islanders now reside, the delegation engaged in solidarity activities, such as medical consultations by a medical doctor in the team and hearing from the islanders on their sufferings.

   On Rongelap:  The January sea around the Marshall Islands is rough with strong winds.  After an 18 hour voyage by a violently rolling boat from Ebeye of the Kwajalein Atoll, we took our first step onto Rongelap Island, contaminated along with the Fifth Lucky Dragon, the Japanese fishing boat, nearly 47 years ago.  The island was big and beautiful with thriving palms.

   Cleanup:  On Rongelap, cleanup work is underway to scrape away the radioactivity-contaminated sands for the planned resettlement of islanders in exile.  The first stage is construction of an airport, dock and other infrastructure-related facilities, which will be complete by March of this year.  8 inches of surface sands (20.32 cm) are being removed and replaced by crushed rocks and coral reef taken from the seabed off the Atoll.  The removed sands are being used for the expansion of the airport.  The ongoing cleanup work, however, covers a very limited part of the whole Rongelap Island.  It is not to remove the surface sands of the whole island.  The replacement, crushed coral reef, is taken from around the island.   I felt worried about this simple cleanup work, wondering if it really would ensure safety for the residents.

   Noen:  It took two hours by boat to go from Rongelap Island to Noen, one of the most heavily contaminated islands located in the north of the same Rongelap Atoll.  The island has never been inhabited, and is left contaminated.  If not contaminated, it would truly be an earthly paradise.  We collected sample soil to count the residual radioactivity.

   The Rongelap Atoll consists of 60 islands of different sizes, where people used to cohabit with the surrounding nature, benefiting from abundant fishes, coconut crabs, birds and fruits.  The nuclear tests destroyed their lives and livelihoods.

   Regaining a Clean Environment:  Coconut crabs are a favorite food of the islanders.  We caught a big one on Noen and tasted it.  Everyone exclaimed, "Its so good!"  Yet radiation does not have any color, taste or smell.  Even if the resettled islanders are warned against eating crabs, their inhibition will not endure for long.  Some days earlier, young people engaged in the cleanup work went to an island in the north and ate a lot of coconut crabs.  The measured value of absorbed radiation then visibly went up.  Yet no cleanup work is planned on the northern islands.

   "Americans want to terminate the cleanup when the current work for the main Rongelap Island has been completed and islanders have returned.  We, however, will check the effect of the cleanup work, and will continue negotiations until the whole atoll becomes a safe place", said James Matayoshi, the mayor of the Rongelap Atoll Local Government.  So that the USA takes full responsibility, the international community must keep watching the whole resettlement process.

 White Church Building on Rongelap:  A white church building on Rongelap has witnessed the islanders' suffering since the 1954 Bravo Shot.  When people lived on the island, it was a meeting place.  After a long period of suffering, the islanders met there to make a difficult decision to abandon Rongelap in 1985.
   Senator Abacca Maddison visited Rongelap in 1999 for the first time in 25 years.  She stood in the church.  In the midst of deep sorrow, she found a seed of hope.  A dreamy idea dawned on her to build a peace memorial museum of Rongelap dedicated to those who died in agony from the suffering from the nuclear tests.  It would recall the history of the islanders in struggle to overcome their hardship and to carry forward their hope for a nuclear weapons-free world down to the generations to come.

   Museum Will Regain Dignity of Humanity: The delegation held a consultation with the mayor of the Rongelap Atoll Local Government, Rongelap Council members, the tribal chief and other leaders on the promotion of the Museum project.  The plan had favorable echoes on Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands.  Local government leaders from many other atolls that also suffered from the nuclear tests and the Institute on Nuclear Weapons Issues of the College of the Marshall Islands offered to work together.  We visited Mejatto, an island where Rongelap evacuees live, to give medical counsel to residents and to hear their stories of the suffering.  We found that support for the plan was widespread on the island also.

   Fred Anjain on Mejatto is 42.  Rongelap residents came back to the island in 1957, when the US authorities declared that the island was now safe.  He was born there in 1958.  At age 3, he suffered trouble with both legs.  He has scars on both legs and waist from multiple operations.  As he walks he drags his feet.  To our question, "What does Rongelap mean to you?", he bluntly said, "Hell", and added, "Life on Rongelap was a mess.  There was no choice other than abandoning the island.  I have no idea about our future, and memory of our life in Rongelap is getting dim."   But when coming to the Museum plan, he said with a smile, "The museum could leave on record what happened to Rongelap and what hardship we had to endure.  I support the plan 200 percent."   His words reminded me of the statement made by Abacca: "The museum is to help the islanders restore their dignity and heal their agonies.  By making known their suffering, we want to warn that the tragedy of humans causing damage to humans with nuclear weapons should not be repeated."

   Struggle for Compensation:  The agreement on compensation, associated with the Compact of Free Associations and signed by the Governments of the Marshall Islands and the USA, will expire in July this year.  The Marshallese Government demanded additional compensation from the US Congress in September 2000 on the ground that the amount thus far paid or promised was not adequate to compensate the damage.  The claim includes 269 million dollars as individual-based compensation for health damage.  The islanders of the atolls that suffered from nuclear tests, such as Bikini, Rongelap, Enewetak, Utrik and Ailuk, are making full reassessment of the damage caused, and considering the possibility of bringing their case to the US courts if the US administration does not comply.

   During the visit, the delegation had talks for the first time with leaders of the atolls of Bikini, Utrik and Ailuk.  Many expressed their hope to establish a friendly relationship with Gensuikyo, as the Rongelap islanders did.  It was a moment when the link became tighter between the movements in the two countries that shared the experience of suffering from the nuclear test at the Bikini Atoll and the desire for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

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