Bikini was just the beginning, bombs still threaten the islanders

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Bikini was just the beginning, bombs still threaten the islanders

John Pilger visits the Marshall Islands and the people who survived the bombs. They still have US nuclear weapons there.


The Marshall Islanders survivors group (with John Pilger) learn from the past and warn about the future. © Bruno Sorrentino and John Pilger

I went to the Marshall Islands recently. They are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, north of Australia and south of Hawaii. When I tell people where I have been, they ask, ‘Where is that?’

When I talk about Bikini, people think of swimming clothes. Not many people know that the bikini got its name after the nuclear explosions destroyed life on the Bikini islands; the designer of the bikini, from Paris, wanted the bikini to explode around the world. Sixty-seven very big nuclear bombs were exploded in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958: this is the same amount as more than one Hiroshima every day for 12 years.

As my plane landed, we saw the green water under us disappear into a big black hole. This is the crater from the 1954 Hydrogen bomb, called Bravo. When I stepped out of the plane, my shoes showed it was ‘unsafe’ on a Geiger counter. Palm trees looked strange. There were no birds.

I walked through the jungle to the bunker. This was where, at 6.45 on 1 March 1954, the button was pushed for the bomb - the most powerful force on earth. Plants have now grown over the concrete bunker. But inside it looks like it did in 1954: cartons of Milkmaid powdered milk, packets of Lucky Strike cigarettes and a sign: ‘Please leave this place as you find it. Thank you for kindness and understanding.’

The explosion blew up the whole island and the fall-out spread over a very big area. Official history says that the wind changed suddenly. This was the first of many lies, as people and documents have shown since then.


Abacca Anjain-Maddison holds a photo of her uncle, John Anjain. He was the mayor of Rongelap, which was destroyed by the 1954 Bravo H-bomb. Bruno Sorrentino and John Pilger

Gene Curbow, a meteorologist who checked the test site, said, ‘They knew where the radioactive fall-out was going to go. Even on the day of the bomb, they still had an opportunity to take the people way, but they didn’t; I was not evacuated.. The United States needed some guinea pigs to study the effects of radiation.’

The secret of the Marshall Islands was Project 4.1. This scientific programme started by studying mice, then humans, exposed to the radiation of a nuclear weapon. Most of the women I interviewed had suffered from thyroid cancer; many died.

The US Navy brought all the people back to Rongelap atoll, where radiation came from Bikini, but the food was unsafe to eat and the water unsafe to drink. Greenpeace sent a ship to save the people. But many of their children suffered from genetic effects.

An old film says these people are friendly savages. A man from the US Atomic Energy Agency says that Rongelap is ‘the most contaminated place on earth’. He also says that it will be interesting to see how the contaminated environment affects humans.

Nerje Joseph showed me a photograph of herself as a child. She had terrible burns on her face and most of her hair had gone. She said ‘We were washing at the well. White dust started falling from the sky. I caught the dust. We used it as soap to wash our hair. A few days later, my hair started falling out.’

Lemoyo Abon said, ‘Some people were in great pain. Others had diarrhoea. We were terrified. We thought it must be the end of the world.’

Human radiation experiments

Tony de Brum was nine when he saw the Bravo bomb. He became foreign minister of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Now he demands justice for his people. He went to the United Nations in 2005 with evidence and said: ‘United States government documents clearly show that its scientists did human radiation experiments with Marshallese citizens. Some of our people were injected with or were forced to drink radiation. Other experiments were making people live on the islands to show how humans take in radiation from the food and environment.’

Up to 1986, the Marshall Islands were a ‘Trust Territory’ controlled by the United States. By law, the US had to protect the people from losing their land and resources and protect their health. In 2004, the US Cancer Institute told Congress that Marshallese people will probably in future, have 530 cancers.


Local people can get tests to see their radiation levels here – but they don't get treatment. Bruno Sorrentino and John Pilger

The US ended their direct control of the islands only after the Marshallese had agreed to accept only $150 million as compensation for their suffering. They also agreed to have the very large US base on Kwajalein atoll. It was there to fight against communist China and was called the Ronald Reagan Missile Test Facility.

The base controls the Pacific all the way to Asia and China. And keeps testing weapons of mass destruction. They set off missiles at night, or fire them into the lagoon from California. After each ‘shot’, islanders get ill with a ‘mystery illness’. The Environmental Protection Agency says no-one must eat the fish in the bay; fish used to be the main food. The cost of firing one missile is $100 million (this is two-thirds of the compensation paid to the islanders).

My plane landed on Kwajalein next to the base golf course. Inside the base, there was a large TV screen showing the US Air Force channel, and the weather across America’s military empire. In Guantánamo, the concentration camp, it was warm.

I took a boat to Ebeye island, where many of the workers on the base live. At the end of each day, after cutting the grass, sweeping the track, watering the golf course and working in the Pizza Hut, they go back to their poverty.

Ebeye is a slum of refugees from all over the Marshalls. About 12,000 people live on a thin piece of land less than a mile long. The rubbish tip is the highest point on the island. There are gravestones along by the sea. There is dengue, tuberculosis, polio, the highest rate of diabetes in the world and a reported case of leprosy.

On the day I left, the Marshall Islands Journal said that a missile test was planned that week, but ‘it might not work’ and people should not go near the ‘debris impact area’.

In 2014, President Obama said that the US was ‘creating the world’s largest marine reserve in the Pacific’. They will not allow fishing or other commercial activities in this perfect clean sea with coral islands.

But, as part of Obama’s military build-up in the Pacific, called the ‘pivot to Asia’, the US has taken control of nine million square miles of ocean. This is twice the size of the United States. They say it is a marine reserve, but it is a ‘marine range complex’. The Pentagon will run it, with torpedoes, underwater mines and many explosions. Bikini was just the beginning.

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