Story

On the Island of Ebeye, a Nuclear Past and Ballistic Present

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A full moon over Ebeye, where 10,000 people live on 80 acres. Image by Dan Zak. Marshall Islands, 2015.

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In 1957, Dorothy Bondrik was moved to Rongelap, an atoll exposed to the U.S. nuclear tests. She now lives on Ebeye. Image by Dan Zak. Marshall Islands, 2015.

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Residents of Ebeye take a 20-minute ferry between their island and their work at the U.S. Army Garrison at Kwajalein Atoll. Image by Dan Zak. Marshall Islands, 2015.

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High school students hang out in the shell of a former hospital on Ebeye, steps from the ocean. Image by Dan Zak. Marshall Islands, 2015.

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School administrator Deo Keju walks to work through a maze of Ebeye's rusted infrastructure. Image by Dan Zak. Marshall Islands, 2015.

The island of Ebeye is a windswept, treeless 80 acres halfway between Australia and Hawaii, in a northern atoll of the Marshall Islands. Ebeye was a seaplane base for the Japanese during World War II. Since then it’s been a relocation spot for generations of Marshallese citizens who were exiled by nuclear-weapons tests. From 1946 to 1958, the United States used two atolls to conduct 67 explosive tests that together were thousands of times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Residents of Rongelap Atoll, which was in the path of radioactive fallout, were resettled on Ebeye and the neighboring island of Mejato. Across the lagoon from those islands is a U.S. Army garrison that hosts the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, which the United States uses today to launch and deflect dummy nuclear weapons.

There are just a handful of survivors from Rongelap who are left on Ebeye and Mejato. Some fall into the "exposed" category, because they were on Rongelap for the 1954 “Bravo” shot, the biggest explosive test; some are "control," because they were brought to Rongelap after the detonation but before American clean-up efforts. There are no permanent oncologists in the Marshall Islands; neither is there the ability to perform cancer treatments like chemotherapy, nor true consensus between the Marshallese and the U.S. Department of Energy about the effects of radiation exposure, both during and after the tests.

"When we complain about sicknesses or effects and think they're from the radiation, then the doctor says they're not," says Dorothy Bondrik, 70, who was part of the control group who moved to Rongelap in 1957 and now lives on Ebeye. She says she'll never go back to Rongelap, even though the Department of Energy has given the go-ahead for resettlement, and even though contractors for the U.S. Department of Interior have built 50 new homes and paved new roads and a runway.

Making things right means resettling Rongelap, but so far the United States has largely failed despite extensive cleaning and regular on-site monitoring by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Both the U.S. and Marshallese governments have agreed to cut off American funds for Mejato to prevent the Marshallese from treating it as their permanent home.

Around 10,000 Marshallese people crowd onto Ebeye because the Army garrison provides the country's highest hourly wage: $10 to $12, as opposed to the $2 minimum wage in Majuro. At dawn, Ebeye residents haul empty Coleman coolers and Heinz vinegar jugs onto the ferry to bring drinking water and food back home from the base. For Marshallese who don't work on the base, there's a fenced area by the dock with a laundromat and an "American Eatery," which serves three-piece chicken baskets with a heaps of mashed potatoes and white rice.

Conditions in Mejato and Ebeye are very difficult: Overcrowding, disease, structural deterioration, idleness and unemployment, a scarcity of natural resources. On Ebeye, a black market thrives. In March 2015, gas was $6.45 a gallon.

"We'd have better living conditions in Rongelap," says Marshallese Senator Kenneth Kedi, "but what is underneath the houses, the grass, the pandanus, the papaya, the coconut trees? ... Washington, American citizens—they do not grasp the concept of land the way the Marshalls does. It's the very fabric of our society. We are linked to that land."

Many young Rongelapese have no real emotional attachment to their home atolls, which seem remote and primitive compared to the more urban environments in which they've been raised.

"Our younger generation may have heard of it, but to understand truly what we went through, we need to talk about it," Dorothy Bondrik says.

The past does infect the present in one strange, anecdotal way: During and after the U.S. missile-defense tests, which light up the sky with glowing streaks, some people on Ebeye and Mejato say they feel sick. Nausea, vomiting, flu-like symptoms—or at least the rumor of them. The test missiles do contain hazardous substances, but their low quantity and considerable distance should not have any effect on people. The U.S. military's environmental studies do not cite any effect on the local population, save for a 2012 assessment that considered the likelihood that debris would strike a sea turtle or other marine mammal. The chances of this scenario were judged "remote."

Deo Keju, an administrator for the public school system on Ebeye, went to college in the United States and still watches American TV news. He's fascinated by reports about American politics, wealth and power. He's seen footage of homeless people in New York City, huddled alone against the winter.

"Which would I rather be? Honestly I would be here," says Keju, 55, who was born on Wojte Atoll, moved with his family to Ebeye in 1965, and returned after college to help fix the unfixable. "You never feel alone. Even though we're poor, we don't feel poor. I think because we have one another."