In Marshall Islands a Day of Happiness and of Sorrow

March 14, 1999 - 0:0
RONGELAP ATOLL, Marshall Islands This month, 45 years ago, the sun rose in the west at this mid-Pacific atoll. Rongelap islander Mwenadrik Kebinli remembers the day of the bravo hydrogen bomb test as if it happened yesterday. At a bittersweet ceremony Thursday marking the start of a U.S.-funded $8-million project to clean up and rehabilitate this radioactive island, Kebinli, now in her 80s, recalled the day that forever changed the lives of Rongelap people.

There was music, dancing and laughter during the groundbreaking ceremony, but for the elders the event was tinged with sadness. Some of these people know that they are making their last visit to Rongelap, said Mayor James Matayoshi of the elders. In the early hours of March 1, 1954, the bravo test was conducted on Bikini, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the west of Rongelap Atoll. Kebinli was up before dawn, preparing breakfast for her family when suddenly the sun appeared to rise in the west.

At 15 megatons, it was the largest U.S. nuclear bomb explosion, but Kebinli and the other 81 islanders then on Rongelap would not learn that until they were evacuated two days later. It was not until the mid-1980s, when the U.S. government released classified documents, that the islanders learned the Bravo test had gone ahead despite clear weather reports that the winds had shifted and were blowing directly toward Rongelap and other inhabited islands.

A bright light came out of the west and a short time later I heard a sound like thunder, she said. The ground began to shake and the pots and pans fell off the table. Within a few hours, a snow-like ash began falling on Rongelap. Children, not warned to take precautions, played in the radioactive powder which fell in the drinking water and contaminated the food.

Soon after their evacuation, 48 hours after Bravo, Rongelap islanders experienced radiation skin burns, nausea and hair loss, symptoms similar to those seen in victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. U.S. Atomic Energy Commission doctors allowed the people to return home in 1957, but for many years Rongelap leaders questioned the safety of the environment. The health concerns reached a peak in the mid-1980s and, in 1985, the entire community of about 400 people picked up and moved to Mejatto Island in nearby Kwajalein Atoll, where they remain.

While U.S. scientists dismissed islanders' concerns at the time, subsequent studies have shown Rongelap Atoll has unsafe levels of radiation. The U.S. Congress voted a $40 million resettlement trust fund in the mid-1990s and the first phase of the rehabilitation effort is now seriously underway at Rongelap. We want to return home, Kebinli said. But because of the radiation people had no choice but to evacuate.

She said she has been saddened by the plight of her fellow islanders who have suffered many health problems as a result of the U.S. testing. But now, she said, with our return this week and the raising of the American flag on Rongelap, it's a sign of working together to resolve our problems. During the ceremony, the 200 Rongelap people in attendance heard strong words of encouragement from a top U.S. government official who travelled from Washington to witness the event.

We will work together to make the vision of a return to Rongelap a reality, said Allen P. Stayman, director of the Office of Insular Affairs in the Interior Department, which is overseeing the resettlement work. He said the us government accepted responsibility for the damage caused by its nuclear testing from 1946 to 1958, and was funding health, environmental monitoring and cleanup programs.

Under construction is a base camp at Rongelap which includes a power plant, equipment that can produce 10,000 gallons of fresh water daily, catchment tanks, housing for workers and visitors, a new dock and a refurbished airstrip. Top soil in the village area will be replaced by crushed coral to reduce radiation exposure, while potassium fertilizer will be spread to prevent root crops, such as coconut and pandanus trees, from picking up cesium 137 that is embedded in the soil.

Marshall Islands President Imata Kabua, who attended the event, summed up the feelings echoed by Rongelap elders: Even if you have money, he said referring to compensation received for the U.S. test damages, if you're not able to live on your home islands, the money means nothing. (AFP)