Story

The Marshall Islands, a Ground Zero Forgotten

dsc_0064_1.jpg

Nearly 70 years ago, the United States used the Marshall Islands for testing nuclear weapons. Now, strong tides blamed on climate change are exhuming graves in the Marshallese capital of Majuro. Image by Dan Zak. The Marshall Islands, 2015.

A boy and his grandfather are fishing in the shallows off their tiny island, a dot of green in the sapphire eternity between Hawaii and Australia. The flash comes first, silent and brighter than the sun, from a four-mile-wide fireball beyond the horizon. The sky turns blood red. Wind and thunder follow.

Even 61 years after, Tony deBrum gets “chicken skin” when sharing his memories of the largest American nuclear-weapons test — the biblical, 15-megaton detonatation on Bikini Atoll, 280 miles northwest of his island. Its flash was also seen from Okinawa, 2,600 miles away. Its radioactive fallout was later detected in cattle in Tennessee.

“We pause today to remember the victims of the nuclear-weapons testing program,” deBrum says to a couple hundred people seated in a convention hall in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, a little-known nation that was entrusted to the United States as a primitive society 68 years ago.

It’s March 2, Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day, and the boy in the shallows is now the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, which has entered the 21st century as part trust-fund baby, part welfare state. Its elders have endured burns that reached to the bone, forced relocation, nightmarish birth defects, cancers in the short and long term. Its young people have inherited a world unmade, remade and then virtually forgotten by Washington, D.C.

The victims of the tests “have been taken from us before their time,” deBrum says, so that Americans could learn more about the “effects of such evil and unnecessary devices.”

From 1946 to 1958, the United States conducted 67 tests in the Marshall Islands. If their combined explosive power was parceled evenly over that 12-year period, it would equal 1.6 Hiroshima-size explosions per day.

This is not something one gets over quickly.

Payday at Bikini Jack’s

“Washington — and this is just my personal opinion — I think they’re going out of their way to wash their hands of the Marshalls,” says Jack Niedenthal, a Pennsylvanian who arrived in the islands with the Peace Corps in 1981 and eventually became one of their unofficial representatives to the United States. “You look at what they spend on Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s billions upon billions. For four bullets into a tree in Iraq, they could fix this entire place.”

A woman peeks inside Niedenthal’s office at the Bikini Atoll town hall, her face met by chilled air. Niedenthal is at his desk, toothpick in his teeth. He beckons her. She shuffles in, baby on hip, and says, “Where’s my check?”

Niedenthal flips through paperwork, plucks out a slip of paper worth $147 and hands it over. This is the quarterly compensation for displaced Bikinians and their descendants. Splayed over Niedenthal’s desk are checks for some of the 5,258 people who receive money from a trust fund administered by a division of M&T Bank in Baltimore. It’s payday at town hall, a teal-colored building in Majuro, where Niedenthal — “Bikini Jack,” as he answers his phone — manages the U.S. trusts that were capitalized as a kind of apology.

See the full story, images and graphics on The Washington Post.