Marshall Islands

TELL a friend you're travelling to the Marshall Islands and, Pacific paradise in mind, they may beg to come along. The Marshall Islands are certainly remarkable. Not because they're so beautiful - although they are - but because of the resilience of their people in the face of foreign military domination.

This, after all, is where the US tested its nukes. Within months of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Washington tested two more at Bikini Atoll. It secured UN Trusteeship over the territory in 1947, with instructions to promote Marshallese self-sufficiency and health, and proceeded to detonate another 65 - the equivalent of a Hiroshima blast every week for a dozen years.

The 'Bravo Shot' on 1 March 1954 was the biggest, showering fallout on the people of Rongelap and other nearby atolls. The authorities waited days to evacuate them, then moved them back three years later. 'The habitation of these people on Rongelap Island,' one US study noted, 'affords the opportunity for a most valuable ecological radiation study on human beings.'

Nuclear testing ended in 1957, replaced by missile testing at Kwajalein, the world's largest atoll. The atoll's inhabitants were moved to tiny Ebeye. As Ebeye turned into a slum, calls for freedom grew. A Marshallese constitution was approved in 1979, followed by a Compact of Free Association in 1986 in which the 'sovereignty' of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) was traded for guaranteed US access to Kwajalein, atoll restoration and compensation for nuclear victims.

But the $150 million compensation package has fallen far short. Over $1,000 million has been awarded by the Majurobased Nuclear Claims Tribunal set up under the Compact, with more in the queue. The RMI has petitioned the US Congress for another $3,000 million but has been awaiting a response for four years. Local landowners are blocking approval of the new Kwajalein lease. Loss of its most coveted missile-defence installation looms like a dark cloud on Washington's horizon.

Meanwhile, as radiogenic cancers recede, 'lifestyle diseases' have become legion. Crowded on to urban Majuro and Ebeye, Marshall Islanders have embraced processed foods, and diabetes is rampant. So are alcoholism and sexually transmitted diseases.

Ironically, US compensation has a downside. Compact funds outstrip productive investment and tax revenues two to one. Formerly self-reliant islanders live off US dollars and regard themselves as victims. Some complain when told they don't have a tumour, because that means no cash. Those that do receive compensation - Bikinians, for example - are scorned as rich.

Still, Marshall Islanders have reason to be proud, not least of their transition from military domination to shaky sovereignty. Clan chief (Iroij) Amata Kabua led the way, negotiating independence. Imata Kabua, his cousin, took over in 1997, paying for his drinks with public cash and luring Asian developers through the sale of passports. In 2000, the United Democratic Party's Kessai Note became the RMI's first governing 'commoner'.

Whatever can be said of government here (see Politics, below right), the Marshalls are certainly vibrant at the grassroots. With the economic rebirth of his still-poisoned Rongelap atoll in mind, 36-year-old mayor James Matayoshi is promoting ecotourism - the reefs there are reportedly pristine. Young Majuro entrepreneur Ben Chutaro is encouraging the overcrowded neighborhood of Jenrok to clean up, create jobs and earn cash for community projects through the sale of recyclables in US markets.

Matayoshi, Chutaro and their generation want justice from the US, but are mostly concerned about moving the Marshalls forward, shedding its 'victim mentality' and getting off US ' welfare'. After years of injury and hardship, it's people like these - not gorgeous beaches - that make the place so remarkable.

David Kattenburg