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International Reflective Writing

Marshall Islands

A Survivor’s Warning on Nuclear Contamination

by Zohl De Ishtar

Now we have this problem, what we call ‘jelly-fish babies’. These babies are born like jellyfish. They have no eyes. They have no heads. They have no arms. They have no legs. They do not shape like human beings at all. – Darlene Keju-Johnson, Marshall Islands, 1984.1

We are only beginning to see the effects of the atmospheric testing, only the tip of the iceberg. When will we begin to suffer from the underground tests? Ten years, twenty? The government says everything is safe for a thousand years. Even if that were true, which it isn’t, what legacy do we leave the future 
generations? – Marie-Therese Danielsson, French Polynesia, 1987.2 

I have come to share my experience with you because I want you to see your future – what it is going to be – through me. I am living in a contaminated land, with contaminated water. But what is your future going to be if this city will fill with nuclear waste and everything? Where are your children going to live and work? How can you live in the future? – Lijon Eknilang, Rongelap, 1984.3

Atomic Bomb Code Name Baker, Bikini Atoll, Height Minus 90 Feet Underwater,
Burst 21 kilotons Yield. July 23, 1946 0835 local time. photo US Military.

It was three days before the U.S. Navy evacuated the Rongelap people and took them to nearby Kwajalein atoll where they camped for three years while suffering early effects of the radiation

Lijon Eknilang, from Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands, was one of many people contaminated by radioactive fallout when the  USA tested/detonated nuclear bombs at nearby Bikini and Enewetak Atolls between ‑ and 1958. In 1954, the USAexploded a hydrogen bomb on Bikini. Strangely code‑named BRAVO, this bomb was 1,000 times stronger than the one which devastated Hiroshima. 

Pulverised, Bikini’s reef, islands and lagoon were lifted  up into the air and carried as radioactive fallout over Rongelap and other inhabited islands. It was three days before the U.S. Navy evacuated the Rongelap people and took them to nearby Kwajalein Atoll where they camped for three years while suffering the early effects of the radiation that had contaminated them. Their symptoms were similar to those experienced by Japanese people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, until then, the only time in history when nuclear bombs were used against civilian populations in a deliberate act of war. 

We may well wonder, decades later, in 2006/07, how this nuclear experiment could ever have happened to people here on Pacific Islands, not in war‑time, but in a time of peace. Sixty years after the nuclear bombing of Bikini Island, the stark reality of the nuclear experiments as experienced in Lijon Eknilang’s country, were made painfully clear at the Tenth International Women and Health Meeting held in Delhi in September 2005. 

Here is Lijon’s statement:

Madame Chair and distinguished members of this conference. On behalf of my organization, Women United Together in the Marshall Islands (WUTMI), I wish upon you iokwe, and I extend our Kommol tata for inviting us to this conference. My name is Lijon Eknilang, a nuclear survivor who had seven miscarriages related to radiation. I am deeply honoured for this opportunity to speak on the impact of the nuclear arms race on women in my country, Republic of the Marshall Islands. Including my involvement with  WUTMI, I am also a member of another  NGO called  ERUB.  ERUB stands for these four atolls, Enewetak, Rongelap, Utrik, and Bikini, and was organized to represent the voice of the nuclear victims and survivors from these atolls. The word “erub” is a Marshallese word that means ‘broken.’ The very foundation of our livelihood, cultural and social relationships, was broken into many pieces – hard to solidify to this very day. 

A few months ago, my older sister Chiyoko Tamayose, another nuclear survivor went to Washington D.C. Our organization, ERUB sent Chiyoko, hoping she would get a chance to speak on our behalf in the hearing for the Changed Circumstances Petition. Unfortunately Chiyoko was never given a chance to tell her story and her trip was 
wasted. I believe it is important I share her story with you. 

Chiyoko is 68 year old and has 12 children. Four of her children are physically handicapped, and we believe the effect of their unusual conditions came from their mother. For instance, one of her sons is currently 40 years old, but he only crawls like a baby. The son was born with a blister on his back and was taken to the Guam Naval hospital for treatment. He was never treated since the doctors claimed they had never seen a case like him and sent him back to the Marshalls. Another child was born with a lower body so soft as if there were no bones. Chiyoko had gone through number of thyroid surgeries to remove tumours, and she was also among those nuclear victims who were 
involved in a U.S. study of human exposure to radiation.

The U.S. government only recognized the people from these four atolls as nuclear victims. However, we know our whole country is contaminated because more and more Marshallese from every part of our country have  unusual health issues, especially our women.  

We know our whole country is contaminated because more and more Marshallese from every part of our country have unusual health issues, especially our women.

Tests equal to 7,000 Hiroshima bombs July 1st of this year [2005] marked the fifty‑ninth year  from the time Bikini and Enewetak atolls were used for the U.S. Nuclear Testing Program. The U.S. tested a total of 67 nuclear bombs, all of which were  considered atmospheric. The “Bravo” shot, a 15 megaton device detonated on 1 March 1954 at Bikini atoll, was a hydrogen bomb, the strongest and thus most well known among the 67 bombs. It is said that Bravo alone was equivalent to 1,000 Hiroshima bombs and the rest of the tests to be equal to 7,000 Hiroshima bombs. Next year [2006] will be the 60th anniversary of such a legacy, a legacy of cancerous diseases, continuous state of poor health, alienation from our land – the glue that held our people together.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) negotiated its political relationship with the United States in the Compact of Free Association (the Compact) with no clear understanding of how damaging the nuclear tests were and are particularly for the future of the people. A 1994 report of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, 
recently released, states the following in its conclusion:

‘Doses to the thyroid, colon, and stomach of persons on Rongelap, Alinginae, and (to a lesser extent) Utrik at the time of the  BRAVO test in 1954 were extremely high. Based on this analysis, a high proportion of cancers of those organs that develop among members of those population groups are likely to be radiation‑related. About 40% of the thyroid cancers and more than one‑half of cancers to other organs (at all atolls) are yet to develop or to be diagnosed. Hence, most of the radiation excess is projected to occur in the coming years. The exception is radiation‑related leukemia which is unlikely to develop in the future.’4

Pictures taken before and after the Bravo test

It took more than forty‑one years for the U.S. government to finally admit their nuclear testing programs affected the lives of our people. A Section 177 of the Compact [between the Marshall Islands and the  USA] was established to address damages experienced by the people and their land from the Testing Program. A Nuclear Claims Tribunal was thus established in RMI accordingly.

The Tribunal identified 36 cancerous diseases as effects of the Testing Program. The Tribunal heard claims and issued compensations based on the Compact, authorizing US$150 million principal and earnings over the last 15 years. But not all awards have been fully compensated. How can one value the life of a person and his/her homeland? Many people died without benefiting from such compensations. The victims being compensated are those who were born during the testing period, 1946–1958. We have many other cancer victims who were born after 1958. All of these victims have been declined from receiving any compensation.

A study called ‘Cancer in the Pacific,’ is the most updated research and data collection yet available. It was carried out by medical students from the John A. Burn School of Medicine, at the University of Hawaii. This book was released in September 2004.5

According to ‘Cancer in the Pacific,’ cancer is a leading cause of death in the Marshall Islands, and the number of Marshallese females with cancer exceeded males. While many Marshallese females have died and still continue to get affected by the 36 cancerous diseases, the book claims the most common and leading four cancers in women [are] the cervical, breast, lung, and urinary tract. Although cervical cancer leads the other three, it is excluded from compensation eligibility. It is not considered radiation‑related by the U.S. government.

Our government could never argue with the U.S. government for the inclusion of cervical cancer because we had lack of evidence in the past. However, according to the ‘Cancer in the Pacific’ research, the number of Marshallese females found with cervical cancer exceeded all the rest of the neighbouring Micronesian countries. Would the U.S. government consider cervical cancer radiation related and include it as the 37th eligible cancerous diseases?

The $150 million plus [compensation] is practically exhausted, and awards are yet to be made for land damages. The future of the Nuclear Claims Tribunal is also questionable. As mentioned earlier, the U.S. government only recognized the people of the four atolls as the nuclear victims, and the funds were aimed to accommodate them. However, more and more Marshallese from all over our country are affected with these same 36 cancerous diseases (plus cervical cancer) – affecting mostly our women.

Another radiation report known as  BEIR IV was recently released from the National Academy of Science.6  According to this report, 40% of Marshallese women are more likely to die from radiation cancers, and 50% more are likely to have radiation tumours than men. While we find this report shocking, we are more shocked and heart broken because the same report claims the risks for our children are even greater. We have cases of children with physical handicaps and deformed shapes born by mothers who are victims from the four atolls, and from throughout the Republic of the Marshall Islands as well.

We know that mothers need to be healthy in order to produce healthy children. This is a difficult situation for my sister Chiyoko, myself, and many other Marshallese female nuclear victims. How can we maintain a healthy life when many of our health issues are radiation related and beyond our control? For instance, I label myself a nuclear survivor because I am still alive. Yes, I survived, but whenever I think about the seven miscarriages I have had, I feel empty. I suspect all my miscarriages were radiation related because several of my stillborns were deformed, and one had only one eye. Each day, I ached with pains, and the legacy of the nuclear testings will continue to haunt me, and all the other survivor victims in the Marshall Islands.

I hope I have painted a picture of the overwhelming impact of the Nuclear Arms Race on your sisters in the Marshall Islands. We cannot change the past. But, with joint efforts and highly fueled passion, we can prevent nuclear testing from happening ever again, and that our children will never have to be disabled and have their future ‘broken.’ If we succeed, we shall not see our women and children die from nuclear exposure – ever again. With God’s grace and blessing, nothing is impossible for us to accomplish.

Preventing more nuclear atrocities 

Lijon’s statement should be taken as a warning for us all. We should hasten to take steps to ensure the Marshallese experience is never repeated. But this same atrocity against humanity has already been repeated in places like Maralinga and Monte Bello in Australia, Moruroa and Fangataufa in French Polynesia (or Te Ao Maohi), in Christmas Island in Kiribati (and many other places across the Pacific and around the world). We are far behind schedule in ensuring this planet is a safe place for its peoples. And with eight nations currently holding over 27,000 nuclear weapons, and a renewed push for the mining of uranium to feed a proliferation of nuclear power stations across the globe, the question we need to ask is: will humanity heed Lijon’s warning in time?

We urgently need to abolish and outlaw nuclear weapons and all things nuclear. All aspects of the nuclear armaments and power industry should be banned – from uranium mining through nuclear waste dumping, from nuclear power stations to the closely connected nuclear weapons industry. We have been very tardy in our efforts to pull away from the “Cold War” with its menacing nuclear paraphernalia. The clock hands still remain at “two‑minutes‑to‑Midnight!” As Lijon has said: “Since the nuclear weapons tests, the story of the Marshallese people has been sad and painful. Allow our experience now to save others such sadness and pain later. I know first‑hand what the devastating effects of nuclear weapons are over time and over long distances, and what 
those effects mean to innocent human beings across generations. I plead with you to do what you can, to not allow the suffering we Marshallese have experienced to be repeated in any other community in the world. While no government or other organization can restore the health of the Marshallese people or our environment, steps can be taken that will make it less likely the same kinds of horrors will be experienced again.” 7,8

While no government … can restore the health of the Marshallese people or our environment, steps can be taken to make it less likely the same kinds of horrors will be experienced again

Lijon’s story stands as testimony to the sufferings of the Marshallese Islanders and is a moving appeal for justice and the redress of past wrongs. Such action is essential for a positive future for these people and for all the people of the world.

Note:  Lijon’ Eknilang’s statement (above) to the Tenth International Women and Health Meeting held in Delhi  in September 2005, was read out by Zohl de Ishtar, as coordinator of the Pacific delegation, as last-minute visa problems prevented Lijon from attending the meeting.  PE Dr Zohl de ishtar, Post Doctoral fellow, Australiancentre for Peace and conflict studies, the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, is an irish-Australian sociologist, who works in collaboration with indigenous Australia and Pacific peoples, opposing nuclearisation and colonization of the Pacific region. Zohl de ishtar is author of the book Holding Yawulyu: White  Culture and Black Women’s Law. Melbourne: spinifex Press: 2005 and editor of the 1998 book Pacific Women Speak Out for Independence and Denuclearisation, a joint publication of women’s international league for Peace and freedom (Aotearoa), the Disarmament and security centre (Aotearoa) and Pacific connection (Australia)


1. dé Ishtar, Zohl (ed), 1998,  Pacific Women Speak Out for Independence and Denuclearisation, a joint publication of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (Aotearoa), the Disarmament and Security Centre (Aotearoa), and Pacific Connections (Australia). Raven Press: Christchurch. 

2. dé Ishtar, Zohl, 1994, Daughters of the Pacific, Spinifex Press: Melbourne.

3. WWNFIP (Women Working for a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific), 1987, Pacific Women Speak. Why Haven’t You Known?, Green Line: Oxford.

4. National Cancer Institute, 2004, “Estimation of the Baseline Number of Cancers among Marshallese and the Number of Cancers Attributable to Exposure to Fallout from Nuclear Weapons Testing Conducting in the Marshall Islands”, Prepared by the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health and Human Services, Prepared for Senate Committee on Energy and National Resources, p.17.

5. Tsark, JoAnn Ulimani, et al (September 2004), “Cancer in the Pacific”, Pacific Health Dialog, vol.11, no.2, Resource Books.

6. BEIR Committee (1988) BEIR‑IV: “Health Risks of Radon and Other Internally Deposited Alpha‑Emitters”, National Research Council. Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiations. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. This report has served as the basis for further updated research findings.

7. Eknilang, Lijon, 2003, “Learning from Rongelap’s Pain”, Seattle Journal for Social Justice, 2 (1). Fall/Winter: 315–21. See also 
“Testimony of Ms Lijon Eknilang, Council Member of Rongelap, before the International Court of Justice,” (14 November 1995): 

8. For history and background see Eknilang, Lijon. “Horror in the Marshall Islands”,  Spring, 1996, vol.11, no.2; Barker, Holly M., 2004,  Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-Nuclear, Post-Colonial World, Wadsworth.

Source: Pacific Ecologist Summer 2006/07:


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