MANILA – As U.S. President Barack Obama visits the atomic-bombed city of Hiroshima on Friday, residents of the Marshall Islands — the Pacific nation used by the U.S. as a nuclear test site after World War II — have also begun calling for a similar visit by the leader.
“I question Obama’s trip to Japan. Can he come and visit me as I was there during the Bravo incident and got injured,” said Nerje Joseph, 68, a survivor of the March 1, 1954, Bravo Test on the Marshall Islands’ Bikini Atoll.
That blast has been described as the most powerful of the 67 nuclear tests conducted by the U.S. in the tiny country between 1946 and 1958.
In a recent interview facilitated by the Radiation Exposure Awareness Crusaders for Humanity-Marshall Islands (REACH-MI), a group focused on the nuclear weapons testing legacy in the islands, Joseph lamented the lack of interest in a trip to the tiny nation.
“The bomb in Hiroshima was smaller than the bomb that affected Rongelap in terms of strength,” Joseph said of the atoll where he once lived. “But why (is Obama visiting) Hiroshima and not the Marshall Islands?”
Obama was to visit Hiroshima after attending the two-day Group of Seven summit in Mie Prefecture. He is the first sitting U.S. leader to visit the city, which was hit by a U.S. atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945. He is not expected to apologize, but will offer his condolences for all war victims. Instead, Obama will likely talk about his push for a world without nuclear weapons.
At least three atomic bomb survivors, including one from Nagasaki, where a second atomic bomb was dropped by the U.S. on Aug. 9, 1945, were expected to be present when Obama lays flowers at the cenotaph in Hiroshima the Peace Memorial Park near ground zero Friday evening.
“I have lost my island, my ocean, my culture,” Joseph said. “I have lost everything about me. Can Obama come and see me? I am like a coconut floating adrift in the ocean with no set course,”
The interview with Joseph, who has been residing in the Marshall Islands’ capital on the main island of Majuro since the mid-1980s, were shared with Kyodo News by REACH-MI.
Eight days before her 6th birthday, Joseph witnessed the nuclear test from her home on Rongelap Atoll, exposing her and her family to radioactive ash. Unaware of the danger, Joseph playfully applied the falling white powder on her body and also consumed food covered with it. Soon, her lips felt numb, and her skin and eyes felt as if they were burning.
Aside from Rongelap, the inhabited atolls of Ailinginae and Utrok also suffered widespread fallout contamination as a result of the Bravo Test.
Two days later, American soldiers, arriving in astronautlike outfits, ordered residents to leave their homes without taking any of their belongings, taking the residents to Kwajalein Atoll.
In a Kyodo News interview two years ago in Majuro, Joseph said that, after the nuclear test, she lived a life she could never have imagined — suffering skin burns and hair loss, both immediate effects of radiation exposure; being displaced from her home. She said she was ridiculed by others for her condition, suffering from thyroid cancer and miscarrying twice while also giving birth to a mentally disabled child.
Rosania Bennett, 45, president of REACH-MI, said by email that if Obama visits the Marshall Islands, he would “see for himself what our nuclear victims go through every single day since 1954 up to now.”
“I wish Obama would spend some time with one of them to have, at least, that humanly connection before they are wiped off from the face of the Earth,” Bennett said.
“A heart-to-heart connection goes a long way,” she added.
Desmond Doulatram, 29, a co-founder and officer of REACH-MI, added that while he is “extremely proud” of Obama’s Hiroshima visit, “showcasing his respect for the Japanese people,” he is “deeply and extremely disheartened that (U.S. leaders) are overlooking the poor island folks in the Marshall Islands.”
Although happy that the U.S. is acknowledging its nuclear legacy in Japan, Doulatram slammed the same lack of a similar acknowledgment by the United States “in their small island developing state.”
Believing that Obama’s Hiroshima trip is “a peace visit,” Lani Kramer, another REACH-MI official, said she views it as Obama’s way of “showing the world the devastation caused by nuclear weapons, and that he is a big supporter of a nuclear-free world.”
“He was born in Hawaii. I am sure the attack on Pearl Harbor has affected him deeply as well,” Kramer said, referring to the December 1941 attack by Japan on the U.S. naval base that sparked American entry into World War II.
The U.S. has stood by its position that full and final compensation worth $150 million has been paid to the Marshall Islands, on top of other assistance it has already extended.
With nearly 55,000 people, the Marshall Islands is one of the world’s smallest countries in terms of population and land area.
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