The last few days we have been optimistically trying to organise a flight to Mejato. Mejato is a small island at the north end of the Kwajalein Atoll. It is also where a large section of the Rongelap community still live after being evacuated there by the Rainbow Warrior 25 years ago. The main purpose of our visit to the Marshall Islands is to reconnect with the Rongelap community and check how they doing, particularly in the face of US pressure to return to their nuclear fallout contaminated homeland. Unfortunately organising anything in the Marshall Islands takes a great deal of patience and flexibility. It's a great learning experience and exercise for two such people as Bunny and I who always try and squeeze every productive moment out of the day and do 5 things all at once.
The Islands in the Marshalls are really quite far apart, there are, surprisingly, very few boats here and no ferrys to get from island to island. Like many things here fuel is exorbitantly expensive and so most people who did have boats have given them up. Sailing being another skill that seems to be have all but disappeared. Air Marshall Islands the national carrier has 2 planes but it seems that most of the time at least one and very often two of them are not working. Stories abound of the airline not having enough money to pay for the parts to have the planes fixed, or to pay for landing fees or to pay the pilots so it really is a lottery whether your flight will go or not. The Marshallese have nicknamed the airline Air Maybe and it's definitely apt. On Monday morning we got up at 4.30am and made our way to the Majuro airport for our flight to Kwajalein Island (A US military base but also the nearest airport to Ebeye an island nearby we were headed to) only to be told our flight was cancelled, though we did manage to get here on a flight in the afternoon.
Arriving at the Kwajalein military base is an interesting experience. So far everywhere we have been has been squalid, dirty, poverty stricken, though full of friendly Marshallese people. The Military base is kind of the opposite. In a country where land and space is the ultimate luxury the Kwajalein base is a clean tidy suburbia with neatly mowed parklands, golf course, immaculate palm lined streets and somewhat unfriendly officials. Unlike the Marshallese who arrive on the base and are allowed to walk over to the dock to get a US navy boat to Ebeye, Bunny and I have to wait under constant supervision to be escorted off the base. They take away our passports and photocopy every single page in them and then we have to answer questions about where we are staying and who sponsored us to be there etc. I think it's the standard treatment of foreigners, I don't think they have clocked we are from Greenpeace yet. Bunny passed through the base once in transit and because they knew she was from Greenpeace they made her wait in some kind of cage till her next flight!
The Kwajalein military base has been a US strategic base for many years. They use the base to test missiles, specifically it has been used for the Star Wars programme, something Greenpeace opposed since its inception. The general idea of Star Wars is to use a missile to shoot down a nuclear armed missile. They fire one from Vandenburg in California and the intercepting one from Kwajalien. The technology has never been perfected despite billions being invested and it only serves to set off a race as other countries try to develop the technology, or develop weapons which can evade the technology…. Greenpeace has undertaken a few actions against Star Wars, one niggling thorn in the side of the US military however has been a Greenpeacer (and Kiwi) called Alice Leney. Alice during one such action camped out on an island right opposite the missile test site, the US hated it, but there was nothing they could do as Alice was there with the permission of the landowner. That time we successfully delayed one of the missile tests, and made sure global opposition to what was being done here was heard.
Its very funny meeting people in Ebeye, because when we tell them we are from Greenpeace they say -"oh do you know Alice?" Most of them grin and tell us an amusing story of Alice making his escape from pursuing police.
Before we left Majuro we were preparing everything for our Mejato visit. I transformed myself from Amanda Briggs-Hastie fundraiser to Amanda Briggs-Hastie, serious documentary maker and organised an interview with Giff Johnson. Giff is an amazing guy, he is the editor of the only Marshall Islands newspaper, and also an expert on the history of the nuclear testing and all of the agreements, compensation and legal wranglings that have gone on over the years. It was great to get someone to give a good coherent summary for me on camera. I had heard it all before but each time I hear the story my blood boils. I just can't believe such injustice can have occurred and continues to occur and so few people know about it. It really does begger belief the number of times the Rongelapese have been lied to. Bunny and I were reflecting yesterday that the injustice will continue, the Marshall Islands are barely above sea level, in fact a lot of the Atoll is below the water. If climate change continues unabated as it is currently then it'll be the Marshallese who will once again be made homeless.
We also saw Rinem and Jonathan again before we left. I was taking advice from Rinem on what was appropriate clothing for me to wear since the Marshallese are quite religious and as a result pretty conservative. I am now left with just one dress out of the 10 or so I had thought were conservative enough to bring here. Dresses need to come below the knee, no bare shoulders and high necklines. Apparently this is also how I need to be dressed if I want to go for a swim when I get to Mejato. I pulled out my string bikini to see Rinem and Jonathans reaction. How they squealed and laughed at the very thought of me thinking I could wear it! I'm having great fun comparing notes about our different cultures. Rinem had brought me a present of a lovely shell headdress. I have what my family have always teasingly referred to as a "pinhead" so when I tried it on it instantly felt straight over my head to my neck. "No problem" says Rinem you should give it to your husband. I really couldn't keep a straight face at the thought of presenting the headdress to my rugby watching very blokey bloke Kiwi fella - not a chance on earth he would go anywhere near the headdress :
Bunny had given Rinem a copy of the documentary "The Rainbow Warriors of Waiheke Island", a story of Bunny, her partner Henk and a few others from old days of the Warrior and reflecting on the impact they made and their lives today. Rinem was shocked that there was a very brief shot of people skinny dipping in the film, she teased and chastised Bunny for not mentioning it, the film could definitely not be shown publicly! Bunny was a bit embarrassed but we all had a good giggle about it. Most hilarious though was when Rinem told us the next day that her teenage grandson had taken the DVD into his bedroom and locked the door - oh dear - what have we done!
We are currently staying on Ebeye, and homed in the rather salubrious surroundings of an old trailer at the dump. What a view we have of rubbish and old shipping containers - spectacular! It's also inexplicably expensive. Ebeye is an interesting town. There are 15,000 people living on a plot of land that is about 100m wide and 500 m long. It seems like 80% of those 15,000 are kids too. The kids are really sweet, almost all want to say hello or shake your hand and they go wild with excitement if you take their photo. I had to be rescued by a Marshallese adult yesterday as I was mobbed by kids insisting on having their photo taken. The cutest of all was a wee guy must have been all of 6 years old. "hello, how are you? " he asked me. "I'm great thank you, and how are you?" I replied. With total sincerity and innocence he grins at me and says "Just like Jesus!" - so sweet!
We went to see 2 Rongelapese, who are Bravo test survivors and now live in Ebeye. Julian who sailed with the Warrior from Honolulu 25 years ago on the way to begin the evacuation is now the High School Principal in Ebeye. He does not want to return to Rongelap. He understands that only a small part of the Atoll has been cleaned and even then he can not trust it is safe. They have been lied to so many times, why would this time be different? It seems that it is still an experiment. Can anyone really be sure it is safe? They moved 25 years ago to protect the future of their children, in his eyes nothing has really changed in that regard and a return to Rongelap is not a good idea.
We also met Jabon, Julian's brother, who is now a Senator based here in Ebeye. He tells a very similar story to Julian. In fact everyone we have met so far has the same opinion that going back without a proper clean up is a bad idea. The only exception to this was the Rongelap Mayor who has responsibility for all the negotiations with the US for clean-up and compensation and so chose his words with us rather carefully and noncommittally.
Yesterday we made our daily ritual to the Air Marshall Islands office to "confirm" our next flight on to Mejato, our ultimate destination. The flight was supposed to be today, after being told to come back later several times we were eventually told our flight had been cancelled again. Maybe a flight will go on Thursday instead, maybe not. We will no doubt have to drag ourselves through the scorching sun down to the office several times today to try and find out. In the meantime we have the local Iroij (Chief) trying to workout if there is a boat anywhere we can use to get us there and back. Bunny and I have been joking that since Air Maybe is so bad we may be stuck here for life, but there are plenty of projects we can work on and we will definitely have a yacht built and use that as a business to ferry people around.
So maybe, hopefully, this will be my last blog until we get back from Mejato. If not Bunny and I will continue to learn great lessons in patience and the need to apply sunscreen since we both currently look like we could be towing Santas sleigh!