My fish is your fish

US test nuclear missile in the Marshall Islands. Picture: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

MY fish is your fish, as they say in Marshall Islands.

What they are telling us is that nuclear bomb testing done in their islands 60 years ago polluted the sea and the fish they ate then — and warn that we face the same horror.

The US did 67 nuclear missile tests in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958.

All combined, the tests worked out to the equivalent of dropping, every day for 12 years, bombs more than one and a half the size of
the first that fell on Hiroshima in Japan to end World War II.

The horror of nuclear radiation injuries, illnesses and deaths and the genetic deformities of subsequent generations in Hiroshima
have been widely recorded.

What happened in Marshall Islands was less well known.

The people of Bikini and Enewetak atolls were moved to new places to shield them from the direct effects of the nuclear fallout
from the bomb tests, but it was vast and reached far locations the government did not expect.

Subsequently people from these areas have suffered symptoms common to radiation sickness and high numbers of cancer deaths.

They continue to struggle for reparation for the damage wrought by the tests.

Today’s major concern is something the grandparents of young Marshallese call the ‘Graveyard’.

It isn’t a conventional cemetery but it is full of death.

Known more officially as the Dome, it is a radioactive dump site on Enewetak Atoll, with 80,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste supposedly sealed inside but already leaking.

There are widespread concerns that rising sea levels or a hurricane could flush large amounts of this highly radioactive plutonium
into the Pacific Ocean – affecting our ocean and our fish and ultimately, us.

The Marshall Islands Students Association at the University of the South Pacific held a talanoa last Tuesday to talk about this threat.

They spoke as activists, not victims, and some things they said resonated strongly with me.

I too was born on Pacific shores and take the Marshalls situation most seriously.

It is part of the overarching issue of peace and security that includes almost everything else, including social and economic justice, climate change and feminism.

My involvement dates from the days when the peace movement was led by the CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Most people still recognise the international peace symbol that combines the semaphore signals for N and D in a circle.

Even when CND originated in the 1950s in Europe where people were gripped by a genuine fear of nuclear conflict, there were telephones and telegrams.

But every Boy Scout and Brownie knew how to wave flags to semaphore painstakingly spelt out messages — hence the sign.
By the time I got involved the peace movement in the 1960s it was well into protesting against the Vietnam war and sending foreign
army conscripts to fight.

Fiji wasn’t doing that, so it was less of an issue here.

Then came the French nuclear tests on Mururoa Atoll in Polynesia, apparently involving more than 170 nuclear explosions between
1966 and 1996.

Fiji formed the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement in 1975 as a loose coalition of non government organisations and others with a strong lobby for self-determination for Pacific island countries, to be able to control their own destinies and not be obliged to allow nuclear testing.

Much of the impetus came from students at the recently established University of the South Pacific and I was keen to dust off my old CND badge and join them in their first protest march through Suva.

By that time I was a journalist on The Fiji Times and having obviously talked too much about it in the newsroom, got assigned to do
the report.

News reporters are supposed to be uninvolved, unaligned, impartial observers — not hard to do when reporting a fire or court proceedings or traffic accidents.

Less easy when reporting a cause dear to one’s own heart.

I disguised myself with a wig (massive fail, everyone said hello without even noticing) and spent most of the time dodging behind
other people’s banners to avoid being captured on press cameras while I marched, marched, marched and scribbled a few notes.

The media had an important role in persistently writing about independence for the Pacific and protesting against the effects of nuclear testing and as the young Marshallese said this week, it’s not over yet.

And I’m still a journalist.

Another thing they said which hit home was that the grandparents were responsible for giving their real, lived account of the tests and the dreaded Dome.

And I’m a grandparent and although I’ve never been closer to a test site than Majuro, it worries me how much of this information I
take for granted while young people as old as 20 and more don’t know anything about it.

The really interesting bit I learnt from the Marshall Islands talanoa is that through lots of effort by the peace movement the Anti-Nuclear Treaty was passed in the UN and signed off by a total of 70 countries including by my count, eight Pacific States during the past two years.

It needs 50 countries to ratify it to put it into effect and it is complicated for some nations to show how they can comply.

Of course it must be easier for countries without nuclear arms or such ambitions.

A total of 21 countries have ratified the treaty so far, including four Pacific Island countries. Not Fiji.

Nor have many of our friendly donor countries.

The International Day for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons is on Friday 1 March, when Marshall Islands students will be
remembering their grandparents.

The rest of us could jog our governments’ signing arms.

  •  The views expressed are the author’s and not of this newspaper.

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