Many times I have been on the phone or at a gathering of our Greenpeace supporters and one has said to me "Thanks you so much for all that you do, you are so brave! I wish I could be out there with you". I've never quite known how to respond to this. Is it better to keep quiet and let these lovely people think they were talking to a hard core activist from the front lines or admit that most of my day is spent in front of a computer or in the boardroom and that my finest achievement was the creation of an uber-spreadsheet for income forecasting? It's all essential work to make sure the campaigning work we do can happen, but it's not exactly the sexy side of the business. After 10 years of managing fundraising programmes it is definitely time for me to improve my credibility, and I am lucky enough to be able to take time out from my spreadsheets to get involved in something that feels a little more real.
Along with Bunny McDiarmid, our Executive Director, I have come to the Marshall Islands. For those that don't know, the Marshalls are half way between Hawaii and PNG, basically a long way from anywhere. We're catching up with the latest chapter in a very long story about nuclear testing in the Pacific and its lasting legacy. I'll try and give a brief synopsis of the story so far…..
In 1954 the US military detonated "Bravo", a 15-megaton Hydrogen bomb, 1000 times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb. They did so not in the US, but at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The inhabitants of Bikini Atoll had moved off their island to allow the testing to occur having been told the testing was for "the good of all mankind and to end all world wars". The Marshall Islands were a UN Trust territory administered by the US at the time. On the islands of the nearby Rongelap Atoll the community described the day of the Bravo test as the day when a second sun rose, one in the east and one in the west. There was a sound like thunder and then something like ash from a campfire fell from the sky. The people were curious, some of them tasted it, the children played in it and none were the wiser that this was in fact nuclear fallout.
2 days later the American Military arrived and evacuated the Rongelapese. They were allowed to take nothing. They were suffering from severe burns, vomiting and diarrhoea, and their hair was beginning to fall out. The US Military conveniently covered it up and said that the evacuations had been "precautionary" but that everyone was "well" and there were "no burns"!
It wasn't until 3 years later the Rongelapese were able to see their homes again, once the Americans declared Rongelap "safe". Appallingly, from US documents written at the time (some recently declassified) it was clear that the US was interested in using the Rongelapese as Guinea Pigs to study the impacts of living with radiation, rather than having their best interests at heart. They stated that "The habitation of these people on the island will afford most valuable ecological radiation data on human beings." And about a group of Rongelapese that were away from the island during the Bravo test "an ideal comparison population for the studies".
Soon the thyroid tumours began, and the leukemia's and other cancers. The women began to have extremely high rates of miscarriage and deformities. Some women gave birth to so called "jellyfish" babies. The US military doctors visited Rongelap regularly to study the health of the population, note I say study rather than provide health care as quite clearly the focus of the doctors was to gather data rather than to ensure the good health of the community. Over many years the Rongelapese were repeatedly told their island was safe, but with so many of the community sick and dying they knew that was not true. Eventually they made the heart breaking decision that the only option left was to leave their beloved island home for good. Though no one wanted to leave, for the sake of their children they must. In 1984, when no-one else could be found who would be prepared to help the Rongelapese, Jeton Anjain, their senator called Greenpeace.
In May 1985 the Rainbow Warrior arrived in the Marshall Islands and made its way to Rongelap. Over 11 days and three trips the Rongelap people took apart their houses, school and packed up everything else they could and were evacuated from their Atoll to an island 150km's away named Mejatto. Mejatto was chosen because it was uninhabited and would allow the people to stay together as a community, Having left their land this was extremely important.
Mejatto had very little food and was no island paradise like Rongelap, but at least the community would be safe from the radiation. For those Greenpeacer's involved in the evacuation, including Bunny, it was one of the most moving experiences of their time with Greenpeace. It was also the last voyage of the Rainbow Warrior which arrived in o Auckland in July and was bombed by French secret service agents.
Fast forward 25 years. The anniversary year of the evacuation seemed a good time to return to the Marshall Islands and check in with the Rongelap community. Bunny had been back many times to the Marshalls in the early years following the evacuation, but now it had been more than 12 years since her last visit and we'd heard rumours that the Rongelapese were under pressure to return back to Rongelap.
When I first started working at Greenpeace I remember being so appalled by the abuse of the Rongelapese and also so inspired by the evacuation. It typifies what Greenpeace is about, not talking, not waiting for permission, not stuck in the deadlock of politics but doing! If that meant moving an entire population while the men in suits talked so be it. Perhaps if the Rainbow Warrior had not moved the Rongelapese they would still be on the island today (those still surviving), whilst everyone around them tried to argue that there was no problem and even if there was it wasn't their problem.
I have never been anywhere quite like this before. Bunny was rather limited in the information she gave me about this place so I had conveniently added in a fantasy image of island life something like the contents of a holiday resort brochure. The reality of seeing Majuro (the capital) was quite a shock. The sea is all around us yet not visible instead we are surrounded by falling down concrete flats, dilapidated shacks and abandoned cars, rubbish strewn streets and dozens of skinny homeless dogs. Easier to believe you are somewhere like the poorer areas of Johannesburg than a beautiful Pacific Atoll. It has changed a lot in the last few years and I think Bunny finds it very disheartening. In the march towards the western ideal of progress traditional values, skills and culture are beginning to be left behind yet there doesn't seem to be much benefit to the community of this progress - quite the opposite. The urbanised Marshallese clearly live mainly in poverty eating the most appalling processed junk food (which is almost all that is available) which explains the very high rate of diabetes and a number of other related illnesses and it really is hard to see what is gained from this change in lifestyle but very easy to see what is lost.
Majuro for me is a place with very few redeeming features, but the one thing that makes this place special is the Marshallese people. Before I arrived I read about how friendly and gentle the Marshallese are, about the fact there isn't even a word in their language for enemy. Experiencing it and meeting some of the community it's easy to see how this gentleness can be both a strength and can leave them open to abuse. As I arrived at the airport everyone was smiling and saying hello, some small children came up and wanted to shake my hand….. I held back expecting the sales pitch for some over priced knickknack or the request for money. Actually they really were just saying hello and excited to see new people - can't imagine that at Auckland airport.
The first couple of days here went by in a confused blur as we met the Rongelap political leaders. Its very hard to get a complete story from one person here and so much of our time has been in fact finding mode talking to all the people we can to try and piece together some of the recent history we have missed and find out the current state of play in terms of the possible return to Rongelap. From what I have gathered of it all the community is torn between an eagerness to return to their ancestral homeland and a justified distrust in the science.
A small area approximately 200 acres of Rongelap Island - the biggest island in the chain of islands that make up the atoll - has been cleaned up using potassium fertiliser which absorbs the radiation some how. However if the islanders return they will all need to inhabit that one small part of the island and will be restricted in how much they can eat local foods of coconut, pandanus and breadfruit. They will need to rely even more so on imported highly processed (junk) food.. Some infrastructure to support the return of the population has also started to be established on the island.
The US finally took some responsibility for what happened to the Rongelapese and for many years now the US Government has been paying compensation which has been used for medical care and to support the displaced Rongelap people. The US not surprisingly would like to see an end point to the payment of this support. They have intimated that the support payments will stop if the Rongelapese do not return by October 2011. This leaves the Rongelap community with an almost impossible decision to make. Some people will want to return to Rongelap, some people don't think it's safe, some people will never believe it is safe (after so many lies before) and some worry that going back now will mean that there will be no further clean up of the whole atoll which is clearly needed. What will happen to those that go home to Rongelap and what will happen to those who choose not to? It's all rather up in the air. A horrible situation for the political leaders to be in and I would not want to be in their place.
In the last couple of days we have met some of the Rongelapese community who are visiting Majuro for a church conference. Among them are Rinem and Jonathan, the couple that Bunny lived with for 4 months in 1986. What a lovely, warm couple. Rinem is delighted to see Bunny again and to catch up on all the news. It amusing to watch the conversation as she exclaims and giggles at some of the differences between our lives. I just love it when she looks at my photos of the Nelson lakes and describes the snow capped mountains as "white spots"! I tell her that her handwoven floral headdress is beautiful and she is instantly trying to give me it. When you ask Rinem a question she avoids answering directly, it's a much more subtle, first she wants to know what you want the answer to be. Trying to ask where we could take her and Jonathan for lunch became a comical pantomime of Bunny asking "Is Dar a good place to go?" and Rinem saying "if you want to go to Dar we will go to Dar" and Bunny saying "but do YOU want to go there" and so on for an inordinate amount of time. We ended up eating at Dar, still none the wiser if this was where they wanted to go! What I am discovering about Marshallese culture is that it is very much about pleasing the community first before looking after yourself, quite different to our individualistic culture.
Yesterday some of the ladies from the Rongelap choir sang us some songs. It was so beautiful, amazing harmonies, the kind of sound that goes straight to your soul. I was feeling very emotional but one look at the tears streaming down Bunnys face soon set me off to. It wasn't until they added in the actions I realised the song was about the impacts of the nuclear testing and the thyroid cancers and radiation sickness. Typical of the Marshallese though, it wasn't a sad song, it was very upbeat.
We interviewed one of the choir, Lemio, who was 14 when the Bravo bomb went off. She's not filled with anger and revenge like we might be. She is just sad to have lost her beautiful homeland and worries still about future of the Rongelap children. She wants to return but only if they can be sure it is safe and the limits to collecting traditional foods is not so restrictive.
Tomorrow we leave Majuro for Ebeye, which is part of Kwajelien Atoll most of which the US uses for its Star Wars base . Ebeye is where some of the Rongelap people have settled and then we go on to Mejatto where most of the community still live following evacuation by the Rainbow Warrior. There we will talkstory and find out how they are doing and what they are thinking about a possible move back. Mejatto is very basic, no electricity, running water, certainly no internet access and Bunny just informed me no toilets! Suddenly sitting in an office with a bunch of spreadsheets looks like the sexy side of the business afterall.
- Amanda Briggs-Hastie