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By Makereta Komai, PACNEWS Editor in Majuro, Marshall Islands
As the Republic of Marshall Islands prepares to host hundreds of delegates for the Pacific Forum Leaders this week, one of the issues that appear to be swept under the carpet is the compensation claims of survivors of the United States nuclear atmospheric tests conducted in the 1950s.
Nine women survivors of the 1950’s tests who describe themselves as ‘living in exile’ from their homeland and want the Marshall Islands Government to raise their concerns to the United States, who will be represented by its Secretary for Interior Affairs, Sally Jewell.
“We have suffered for so long and our plea to our government at this Forum is to raise our issue to the U.S, who we want to recognise their moral responsibility and give us what is due to us, said 73 year old Lemyo Abon.
“The United States is our friend and we are grateful for what they have done for us. At the same time, we ask the U.S for equal treatment and to compensate us for the suffering and damage caused to us, our homes, our families and our island atoll.
Abon said, “For almost 60 years, we have been displaced from our homeland, like a coconut floating in the sea with no place to call home.”
Now 73 years old, Abon has spent 28 years moving from Rongelap to Mejatto and then settling in the capital, Majuro. She longed for the day to go back home, if she is still alive.
The only time she ever returned to Rongelap was a decade ago and she described it as a ‘painful experience not to be able to recognise the place where she grew up.’
“All we want is for the United States to take responsibility for the damage they caused to our environment and clean up our island so that we can go back, said Abon.
In 1992, the United States Government signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the Marshall Islands Government and the Rongelap Atoll Local Government to clean, rehabilitate and resettle the people of the island atoll.
Senator Kenneth Kedi, the island atoll’s representative in the national Parliament, the Nitijela, told journalists, his people want to move back to Rongelap. However, they will only do so, if the atoll is totally cleaned-up and safe for habitation.
“We were supposed to return in 2012 after pressure from our local government and the United States. We were told that if we don’t return by that date, we will lose all our funding.
“How can we move back when our island is still not fully rehabilitated? Of the 600 acres of land, only 200 acres have been ‘decontaminated’ by removing the top soil and replaced with coral rocks and potassium fertilizers, said Senator Kedi.
“We are not deliberately refusing to move. All we ask is for the authorities to ensure the atolls are safe before we send our people back. Right now it is not safe at all. We might expose our people once more to the level of radiation that is likely to be there.
In 1996, Rongelap was given US$45 million for the resettlement project.
“We have been using the money to try and rehabilitate the island.
The clean up includes building 50 homes for families who will move back to the atoll.
“We will leave today, if the island is absolutely safe and risk and injury free, said Senator Kedi.
Abon agreed with Senator Kedi that her family is prepared to return as long as the island is properly rehabilitated and the U.S compensates them for all their losses.
“We have been waiting for justice for so long. For some of us, it has taken almost all our lives. Others have passed on receiving nothing, said Abon.
Even though she is 73 years, Abon is refusing to give up the fight. She has a lot of hope in her government, led by President Christopher Loeak to take their plight to the highest decision makers in the U.S.
“With the Forum Leaders meeting in Majuro, we hope they will hear our stories and raise it directly with the United States.
Abon was a 14 year old girl when the United States tested one of its 67 nuclear bombs in Bikini and Enewetak. Her northern atoll is close to the test sites. Most of the islanders suffered from the nuclear radiation fall-out from the tests.
“I was out in the field on that day in March 1954 when the blast happened. I didn’t know what it was but I saw white powder falling from the sky and we caught them and used it like shampoo on our hair not knowing that they were poisonous.
“Immediately our drinking water turned yellowish and the food was bitter and tasteless.
She said the most common health problems detected on women on the island include thyroid, breast and uterus cancer.
Another survivor, Nerje Joseph shared her experience with the regional and international media here in Majuro. Her only plea was for the United States to ‘right the wrong’ it has done to her people.
“We were promised compensation and that is not enough. The Nuclear Claims Tribunal has made some awards but we have not received a penny, said Joseph.
“We are the few left from the generation that saw the tests and suffered as a result. The U.S should not deny its moral responsibility and compensate us while we are still living. We don’t want our future generations to suffer like us, said Joseph.
All the nine women survivors live in Majuro with families. Their health care is being looked after by the Department of Energy.
Under the Compact of Free Association with the United States ratified in 1986, section 177 requires that, there is a provision that provides for a comprehensive health care programme for the exposed population.
Senator Kedi said the programme has enrolled just over 15,000 people, with a funding of just under a million dollars.
“If you calculate that, it comes to about $40 per patient per year, which is not enough. There is a clinic here in Majuro called the 177 health care programme for the four atolls. If you go there today, there are no machines to detect radiation in the system or oncology machines to detect cancer induced diseases, said Senator Kedi.
During June 30, 1946 to August 18, 1958, the United States conducted 67 atmospheric nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands. The most powerful of the tests was the ‘Bravo’ shot, where a 15 megaton device detonated on March 1, 1954. That test was equivalent to 1,000 Hiroshima bombs.
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