Long Exile on Kili and Majuro
September 21, 2016
by Michael Christopher Brown
In March 1946 all 167 residents of a small island on a remote Pacific atoll packed up their belongings and left their homes for what they were assured would be a short period during which the United States government would carry out a series of nuclear tests. 70-years later most surviving Bikini islanders have yet to set foot on the island paradise from which they were evacuated. Michael Christopher Brown visited some of the surviving Bikinians on Kili a tiny island where rising tides and storms are putting them at risk again.
World War Two created two superpowers with vastly different ideologies and equally destructive arsenals. Fear of what might happen should either the United States or the Soviet Union steal a nuclear march on the other started a race for supremacy which would have devastating consequences for many years after the so-called ‘Cold War’ between the Western and Eastern blocs ended.
In December of 1945 U.S. President Harry S. Truman spoke of the need "to determine the effect of atomic bombs on American warships.” By March the following year the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, newly freed from Japanese occupation, was being readied for that testing to take place. It’s inhabitants had been persuaded of the ‘greater good’ which would result from the tests. Armed with promises that the period of exile from their homes on the island they loved would be short and that they would be well looked after, they boarded a U.S naval vessel for the Rongerik Atoll 126 miles away.
On July 1, 1946 Operation Crossroads began. In all 67 different nuclear devices were tested over a twelve year period. In that time a number of the atoll’s smaller islands were entirely obliterated and the fertile soil on Bikini was irreparably irradiated.
Bikini’s citizens failed to flourish on Rongerik where food supplies were inadequate and the promised U.S. help did not materialise. With starvation a real threat, they begged to return to Bikini but the levels of radiation far exceeded initial expectations and it was many years before conditions were considered safe enough for anyone to live there.
By 1957 the islanders had signed away most of their rights to the Bikini Atoll in exchange for financial compensation and the opportunity to move to what they hoped would be an island more suited to their needs. They were given Kili, the smallest of the Marshall islands at about 0.36 square miles in size with a highest point of just 10 feet. It could hardly have been less suitable.
Too small for farming and with no lagoon, life on Kili began to defeat its new settlers. While in theory it was possible for the islanders to earn a living making copra - the dried coconut flesh needed to produce coconut oil - the lack of a harbour meant it was impossible to export it in any large quantity. The absence of a lagoon meant Bikinians - traditionally fishermen - were unable to safely provide for themselves by selling fish. They became entirely reliant on U.S - sponsored imports of food to survive and gradually lost the skills which had been handed down for generations.
Early on in the 1970s some families were granted permission to return to Bikini but their homecoming was short-lived. Although the levels of radiation in island’s crystal waters were at an acceptable level, the soil was badly contaminated. The land was still fertile but nothing which grew there was fit for consumption and they were ordered to move on again.
Today the the surviving Bikini islanders and their descendants live scattered between the other Marshall islands in Micronesia; some on Majuro the capital, some on Ejit and Kwajalein and many on Kili where they eke out a living producing copra, farming what little land is available and fishing where and when it is safe to do so. In 2011 the Marshall Islands began to experience unusual flooding. Kili, tiny and low lying, regularly finds itself swamped by seasonal ‘king tides’ which flood houses and destroy roads. The Bikinians are, it seems, being targeted again. This time by nature.
In the Bikini Atoll tourist industry has begun to flourish and visiting divers pay large sums to explore its sunken military wrecks. The island is still considered unfit for human habitation and an argument over funding for the cleaning up and decontamination of Bikini Island continues.
Life on the Kili is slow. Other than a weekly flight from Majuro and rare visits from passing ships the island receives few visitors aside from the volunteers who come to teach there. There are two churches, an elementary school and a few small shops. Many families leave Kili to find work in the United States where they are guaranteed work and residency permits but others, determined to wait it out, remain in the hopes that one day they will return to the homes their ancestors left behind in 1946.
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Sources: For the Good of Mankind By Jack Niedenthal
United Nations Human Rights Council: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes A/HRC/21/48/Add.2
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