Back to Bikini
No-one has suffered more from the long-term legacy of devastation than the people of Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, where US atmospheric nuclear tests began in 1946. But then, as Giff Johnson reports, few people would have had the same determination to return and start again.
'LAND MEANS A GREAT DEAL TO THE MARSHALLESE. IT MEANS MORE THAN JUST A PLACE WHERE YOU CAN PLANT YOUR FOOD CROPS AND BUILD YOUR HOUSES; OR A PLACE WHERE YOU CAN BURY YOUR DEAD. IT IS THE VERY LIFE OF THE PEOPLE. TAKE AWAY THEIR LAND AND THEIR SPIRITS GO ALSO.'
Petition from Marshall Islands leaders to the United Nations, March 1956,
requesting cessation of US nuclear testing.
I first set foot on Bikini in late February 1997 with a group of more than 80 Bikinians. Many of them were returning for the first time in more than half a century. They were marking Bikini Day and planned to spend a few days breaking ground for a nuclear clean-up program that might allow them to return home within as little as five years.
As they walked around their island the sorrow of the Bikini elders was palpable, knowing as they did that this was just a temporary return. Many of the older women, now in their late seventies and early eighties, had not been back since their initial relocation. For them, stepping on Bikini was a bittersweet occasion: like seeing a child you loved dearly half-a-century ago, but with whom you won't have the opportunity to reacquaint yourself because the child is going away again.
'We know we still can't live permanently on our homeland,' Bikini Mayor Tomaki Juda said, capturing both the sadness and optimism of the occasion. 'But just being here for even a few days and seeing the tremendous progress that has been made to improve Bikini and Eneu islands gives us hope that we will return here permanently in our lifetimes.'
I don't share the emotional link to these islands that forms the identity of the Bikinians. Yet I've had the good luck to visit a dozen or more of the remote atolls in the Marshalls in the past 20 years. Bikini is outstanding by any measure: its two main islands (there are 23 in all) are huge by Marshall Islands standards. Bikini Island stretches away in a boomerang shape from the southern tip to its western end, with a white sand beach that just goes and goes and goes... without so much as a footprint to mar the vista.
Bikini Island has an added asset. Unlike most of the Marshall Islands that are just inches above sea level at high tide and flood several times a year the highest point on Bikini is at least five metres out of the water. To say marine life is abundant is to be guilty of a gross understatement. The fish, virtually untouched by humans in 50 years, lined up to bite our hooks when we went fishing.
The Bikinians have often referred to Kili the place to which they were exiled by the US military prior to the tests as the 'prison island'. If Kili is a penitentiary, Bikini is the penthouse suite. An outsider can only imagine what it must be like to have had it taken away by 23 nuclear bombs including the infamous 15-megaton 'Bravo' hydrogen-bomb test on 1 March 1954.
'As I walk around the island, I feel like crying,' said Bikini elder Emso Leviticus. 'I have an incredible feeling of sorrow.' She was one of the 'lucky' ones who got to see her islands in the early 1970s. She came back after US scientists said the atoll was safe. But she and her family were evacuated a second time in 1978 because it wasn't safe and the Bikinians had ingested high levels of caesium 137 from eating foods grown on the island. That second relocation, a déjà vu of 1946, 'was devastating. It was such a hopeless feeling, to have to move again.'
Leviticus is, however, very matter-of-fact. 'This is our final trip here. We were chosen to come here and do the ground breaking because most of us will go back to Kili and we won't come back. The clean-up is so the younger generation can come back.'
Since the first weeks after their resettlement in 1946, the Bikinians have been asking to return home. As they ran out of food on Rongerik Atoll the atoll was known for having a large number of poisoned fish, and its much smaller land area could not support the 167 Bikinians their desire to go back intensified. Finally, two years later, after being found on the verge of starvation by a Navy doctor, they were moved temporarily to the US Navy base at Kwajalein, and then settled on Kili, a single island with no lagoon or protected anchorage. For the next 25 years they learned to live with privation. The story of the Enewetak islanders is virtually identical.
Until the American media began to take an interest in the late 1960s, food shortages were frequent on Kili. Because it had no lagoon, ships often couldn't deliver food and the people couldn't fish because of rough surf. Several times the US was forced to make emergency air drops to keep people from starving. Life has improved on Kili in recent years. The Bikinians have built a power plant, an airport allows planes to land each week and food shortages are now only a memory. But it's a far cry from Bikini.
'No question,' said Leviticus, 'if Bikini is safe to live on, I will come back. It's my land.' Elder Miriam Jamodre, the oldest daughter of King Juda who ruled the Bikinians when they were resettled in 1946 said: 'If they say there's no more danger from the poison [radiation], I will come back... I'm always thinking about coming back. The important thing is Bikini is where we grew up, it's the land where we took our life from. We believe that this is also where we should die.'
The Bikinians' circumstances are paradoxical. On the one hand, they find their life of tinned food courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and life on Kili in general, intrinsically dissatisfying. They long for Bikini and the life they once knew. Yet they are totally dependent on the US. Talk of compensation payments, bank loans, per diems for travel, the next shipment of USDA food, dominate conversation.
Emso Leviticus says that in the old days, before the Americans came, 'we took care of each other. No-one starved.' What she is describing is a way of life that still exists for a third of the 60,000 Marshall Islanders who live on these small islands. Sharing here goes to extremes that foreigners have a hard time comprehending. Food of every variety gets shared, even when there isn't enough for you to eat yourself. The saying 'kandikdik kan yokwe' ('the food is little but we share it to show respect for each other') exemplifies this custom.
But life on the remote outer atolls of the Marshalls is rugged. Everyone works or they don't eat. Spending three months on Jang, an island in Maloelap Atoll, tuned me in to what life here is like. Jang is small enough to walk from end to end in under 15 minutes. Well, that's just an estimate because I couldn't walk anywhere directly: It would often take an hour, or more, to cover the quarter mile from where I stayed to the dispensary or radio operator's room. As I passed by each house people would always call out: 'Come and drink coffee!' or 'Come and eat!' It wasn't just because I was a visitor to the island everyone socializes over food and drinks.
Men and teenage boys went fishing every day, usually in small groups. Some went fishing from a small outrigger canoe they paddled out into the lagoon. If the tides were right they used long nets spread across a pass through the reef to collect fish swept in by the rising tide. Whatever fish were caught were always shared around the island.
In just the same way, when a family needed help in thatching the roof of their house, all the women on the island prepared the thatch while the men put it up. Meanwhile, the family owning the house cooked food and prepared drinks for all the people working. Hard work but just as much a social occasion for everyone to gather together.
Bikini elder Miriam Jamodre described it this way: 'It was a pleasant life on Bikini. We all made decisions as a community of people. We made food together. It was very harmonious.' Leviticus injected a note of realism into the reminiscing: 'It was the Americans who came and changed everything. They sent us to places without food and our lives started changing.'
The Bikinians may mistrust the US Government, but they don't harbour the resentment that one would think natural. In fact, they look to the US Government the way other islanders look to their own paramount chiefs. They believe the promises made by the US Navy in 1946 to care for them and return them to Bikini and intend to hold the US to them. Leviticus was almost dismissive, as if to say: 'Do you even need to ask?'
Following lawsuits and lobbying by the Bikinians, the US Government has provided a trust fund of about $110 million to finance a nuclear clean-up and rehabilitation. This won't be enough to pay for all 23 islands a point the Bikinians are pressing hard. Mayor Tomaki Juda has also made it clear that the clean-up won't start until the highest levels of the US Government not just scientists endorse it, to avoid a repeat of that abortive resettlement attempt in the 1970s.
The ground-breaking in February was a signal that the Bikinians are committed, however long it takes, to going home. *
Giff Johnson is the editor of the Marshall Islands Journal, an independent weekly newspaper published in the capital, Majuro. He has lived in the Marshall Islands since 1984. His wife of 14 years, Darlene Keju-Johnson, who grew up on islands downwind of the Bikini tests, died last year of cancer at the age of 45.