Thursday, September 16, 2010

Hiroshima Hell and Historic Bikini

Since I came back from Japan last month while attending the 2010 World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, I've found myself constantly drawing and painting mushroom clouds.

The conference, the stories and history I heard there, the images that were etched into my mind by speaker after speaker, were full of mushroom clouds, and not just those from Japan (Hiroshima and Nagasaki), but those from elsewhere as well. Although only two nuclear bombs have been used against populations as explicit acts of war, hundreds of nuclear tests, above and below ground have taken place in the Pacific, the Continental US, Siberia, China, India and Pakistan. For populations who live in those areas, such as the peoples from the Marshall Islands of Bikini and Rogelap, these "peaceful" testing of nuclear missiles may have well been acts of war.

In Hadashi no Gen, or Barefoot Gen, a manga written and illustrated by Keiji Nakazawa who was a survivor of the atomic blast in Hiroshima, the atomic blast is regularly referred to as coming stragith from hell, something which clearly should have no place on earth.

In the manga Gen reads out of the account of Matsukichi Hirayama's "The End of Summer," a writer who loses his entire family in the blast, which grips tightly the hellish metaphors of the bomb and refuses to let them go. When the bomb is dropped it is as if the doors of hell have opened and something scurried to the surface. The Enola Gay, with smoke tailing behind it as it flies is thought to be the messenger from hell, you carries with it direct flight tickets for tens of thousands to his place of work. Survivors are transported into the depths of hell in the first day after the attacks, while the fires caused by the blast, which no one seems to be able to extinguish, are the hounds of hell that nip at the hells of the live, and eagerly devour the flesh of the dead. Even when the Matsukichi is able to escape the devastation of Hiroshima and flee like so many others to to hills outside town, the metaphor of hell itself still holds. The fires burned so high and so brightly, that even in the dead of night, the destruction and suffering was still clear as day for all to see. In a bamboo grove nearby he sees scores of people burnt beyond recognition by the blast, their bodies on the verge of death, their minds most likely gone, but still, by instinct they all cried out for water.

The ultimate tragedy of his account is what happens after the initial bombing, and how the hellish nature of the bomb invaded people's bodies. How children would be deformed, and how people healthy one moment would drop dead the next, and no matter what people tried in those first years after the atomic attacks, nothing seemed to save them. It was as if they and their bodies had become cursed that day and the devil could take them anytime he wanted.

Much of the plot flow of Barefoot Gen after the first three volumes deals with efforts by people to rebuild, find some normality in their life again after losing so much, and then the moment they find some happiness, some safety and security, what Nakazawa refers to as the never-ending war, the war with the effects of that dreadful bomb appear and take someone down to hell.

This morning I came across an article from In These Times posted on the blog Kith and Koko, about how the Bikini Atoll is going to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its complex historical significance in helping create the "nuclear age" we now live in. It discuss some of the ways in which people in the Marshall Islands live in their own never-ending war, and how the hell of radiation and nuclear weapons have been brought down upon their own lives, bodies and lands.

The drawings and paintings included in this post are some of the ones I've done recently while I've had mushroom clouds on my mind.

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September 15, 2010

Bikini’s Tragic Heritage
The world’s most atomic atoll is recognized by the UN.
By Peter Cohen
In These Times

In dubious honor of its unique role in 20th century history, on August 1 UNESCO declared the Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site a “World Heritage” site. Both beautiful and historically significant, the atoll — part of the Marshall Islands archipelago in the North Pacific Ocean — was named a heritage cultural site “for the role that tests of atomic weapons at Bikini played in shaping global culture in the second half of the 20th Century.”


It was the first time the UN’s Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization has so honored the Marshall Islands. But Bikini’s new title is likely small comfort for Marshall islanders affected by the testing, including the small surviving Bikinian community, which voluntarily left its home in 1946 after being told by a U.S. military governor that nuclear testing there would contribute to world peace.

The UN declared the Marshall Islands a trust of the United States in 1947, a move “intended to promote the welfare of the native inhabitants and to advance them toward self government.” But even before trusteeship, the United States began to use the Marshall Islands as a proving ground for nuclear weapons. From June 1946 to August 1958, 67 nuclear tests were conducted there.
The most powerful bomb detonated on the islands was the hydrogen bomb “Bravo,” on March 1, 1954. Estimated to produce around four megatons of power, it unexpectedly produced 15 megatons, an impact equivalent to 1,000 Hiroshima bombs. In shifting winds, the fallout from the huge explosion reached the inhabited islands of Rongerik, Rongelap and Utirik, more than 100 miles to the east. Contaminating more than 7,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean with radiation, fallout from the blast also reached Australia, India and Japan. Ocean currents carried the radioactive fallout northwest, where the crew of the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon Number 5 suffered radioactive poisoning resulting in the death of one fisherman.

But the greatest tragedy struck the heavily radiated northern Marshall Islands. In November 1995, Marshall Islander Lijon Eknilang appeared before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague and gave this chilling first-hand account of the effects of nuclear testing in the Pacific: “Women have experienced many reproductive cancers and abnormal births … In privacy, they give birth, not to children as we like to think of them, but to things we could only describe as ‘octopuses,’ ‘apples,’ [and] ‘turtles,’ ” Lijon said, who herself has had seven miscarriages and no live births.

“The most common birth defects … have been ‘jellyfish’ babies. These babies are born with no bones in their bodies and with transparent skin,” she continued. “Many women die from abnormal pregnancies, and those who survive give birth to what looks like purple grapes, which we quickly hide away and bury.”

Lijon pleaded that what she and other islanders have suffered never be repeated. As Alyn Ware noted in SGI Quarterly, the ICJ concluded that nuclear weapons “are unique in their destructive potential, that their impact cannot be contained in time or space, and that there is a universal obligation to abolish such weapons.”

Of course, this has yet to happen. In fact, Bikinians haven’t even been fully compensated for the damage and displacement caused by nuclear testing. The Nuclear Claims Tribunal, a body designated by the governments of the U.S. and Marshall Islands to determine compensation owed, awarded them $563 million in 2001, but as the tribunal points out, funds made available by the United States are “manifestly inadequate.” In 2006, Bikinians sued the U.S. government for most of that money, but in April 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the lawsuit.

While the small number of tourists who now trek to Bikini Atoll may be charmed by its coconut palms and fascinated by the ships that Bravo sank in its lagoons, we must not forget the suffering of Marshall Islanders. It is up to us to see that ongoing nuclear disarmament and abolition efforts ensure that Bikini’s tragic heritage remains unique.

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