First shooting: Forgiven, but not Forgotten – the US nuclear bomb tests in the Marshall Islands

Nuclear bombs were the first serious threat to the existence of the Marshall Islands. 67 (in words: sixty seven!) nuclear fusion and nuclear fission bombs the US detonated over parts of ‘their’ former UN trust territory. Quite a few here say the new bomb, which threatens the Marshall Islands now will hardly be less destructive. They are talking about climate change. It will not contaminate the land. It will devour it.

It is just before eight o clock in the morning and we are on our way to our first shooting on the Marshall Islands. We are on the Majuro Atoll. As soon as we sit in the taxi, a heavy tropical rain sets in. The taxi sign lies in the trunk, Mark is driving. The day before, we asked a cab driver to pick us up for our shooting the next morning. His reaction was unexpected. He suggested that we just rent the taxi for a day, but without him. He would sleep and we could drive as long as we wanted. A good deal for both. Or maybe not. Mark is tired, he curses. ‘What kind of a car is that?’ The hand brake is stuck. The automatic gear-shift lever too. At least, the air conditioning is working. So now we have a car. The warm rain is getting stronger and turns the only main road that leads from one end of Majuro Island to the other in a raging river. We wonder if the rains have always been so heavy. At Kiribati we were told that the rain that is now missing there falls even stronger elsewhere.

To the left and right we pass houses, and directly beyond we see the churned-up ocean on one side and the quieter azure-gray lagoon on the other.
We are looking for the place where people will gather for the peace march on the anniversary of the “Castle Bravo” explosion. It was the biggest bomb ever to be detonated, a fusion bomb that observers said had made them feel as if the mouth to hell had opened. With unfathomable 15 million tons of TNT it exploded on March 1, 1954 at Bikini Atoll. The force of the explosion and the radioactive radiation hit the inhabitants of the surrounding islands violently. People died, became ill and had to leave their home islands forever.
March 1 of each year, they commemorate the victims of US atomic bomb tests conducted between 1946 and 1958 in the Marshall Islands.

No one likes to be on the road in this storm. Vague directions we had got the previous day lead to wild speculations and only we have completely crossed the whole place for the third time, we discover a school class, which is just on its way to the commemoration. We follow the school bus. As we arrive there are already several school classes and a band with brass and drums waiting. Also activists and survivors of the nuclear tests and their relatives are there. The rain has decreased a bit. It starts. We position ourselves with camera, sound recording device and umbrella on the median strip of the street and film the march as it passes us.

The march ends in front of the parliament building in ‘town, town’, as the city center is called here. Most of the attendees of the ceremony are children, accompanied by a few teachers. Actually, today is a holiday, off school. But it’s like everywhere on the blue planet. Going for a swim in the afternoon has its price: the participation in the day of remembrance. A pedestal with a lectern and space for the ‘important’ guests has been prepared. The schoolchildren find space in adjacent tents. The Mayoress of Majuro, the US Ambassador, a representative of the NGO “Nuclear Free Movement”, a representative of the four affected atolls and the President of the Marshall Islands Hilda Heine give speeches. In between, a ukulele band plays traditional music.

Again and again our big camera fails. Since the rain clouds have become thinner and an equatorial sun heats the equipment through the remaining gray clouds, the Canon quickly reaches the end of the line. We will have to buy an icebox to cool the camera. But we do not have it yet. Mark can only shoot about four minutes and twenty seconds at a time before the emergency shutdown takes effect. He concentrates on the important things, keeps cursing but still goes on filming as soon as the camera works again. Apart from the important speakers sits a sad woman who has been holding up a photo for a long time. Her arms are already trembling. But she doesn’t give way. It is important that all people see the picture. Also our camera. Mark nods to the woman and forms the words with his “May I?” He whispers and she nods. The photo shows Lemeyo Abon.

Lemeyo Abon was one of the last survivors of the nuclear bomb tests, she died shortly before the ceremony on February 19 at the age of 77 years. As a child, she witnessed the explosion of Castle Bravo on Rongelap Island, just 200 km from Bikini Atoll.

‘When I was 13 years old, the Bravo hydrogen bomb exploded on the next island. It was early morning when we were preparing for breakfast outside the house. All of a sudden, dazzling light glared around the area and the sky became red very quickly. We heard the very loud sound, “BOOM!”, and the ground began to shake violently. The roof was blown away and a number of coconut trees had fallen down. Indeed I was scared.’ recalls Lemeyo in Hanyuda Yuki’s book ‘Longing for My Home Island.’ The book tells the story of her life, which symbolizes the life of a whole generation. She got very sick herself from the nuclear radiation, experienced the relocation to Kwajalein and the failed return to Rongelap, because contrary to the US forecasts, the islands are contaminated until today and thus actually uninhabitable. Actually, because despite the ongoing radioactivity some people live there again. Lemeyo spoke to international media, traveled to UN meetings to talk about the effects of nuclear testing. She accuses the US of using the islanders as guinea pigs to study the effect of nuclear radiation on human bodies. She has worked tirelessly to ensure that the history of the people of the Marshall Islands is not forgotten around the world. Today, on the 64th anniversary of the explosion of Castle Bravo, her funeral takes place in the family circle.

Meanwhile, the clouds have completely disappeared and the sun blasts mercilessly on the square in front of the parliament. It is hot. Very hot. Unimaginably hot, for European conditions. Somewhat impatient schoolchildren hold white balloons in their hands, and now and then one of them soars up into the sky. Too early. Released. Not paying attention. But then it is time. The children are allowed to fly their balloons. The now bright blue sky is full of white dots. The crowd dissipates. It is over.

For us the day is not over yet. We meet Alson, a Bikinian (a citizen of Bikini Atoll). What he told us was very impressive and we will tell you about it in our next post.

Ti a boo – goodbye

Only half a year ago everything was fine. We were in the midst of the preparations for our film project on Kiribati. We had a clearance from the president’s office with good prospects for a film permit and long-term visas. Just before Christmas (we were still in Germany) we received the message that our clearance was abolished. Nobody could tell us for how long. We flew anyway, wanting to check an resolve everything on the spot in Kiribati. (Link to our first blog post)

What has happened since then? Suddenly, we were on a diplomatic mission. We told each and everyone of our project and our situation. Everybody listened to us with interest and said they were very sorry; they could not understand it at all. We auditioned at all kinds of institutions, talked to senators and secretaries of state. Without success. We were in close contact with the Presidential Office and, at its suggestion, wrote a long letter in which we re-introduced our project. This has not been answered yet.

We got trapped in a net of political complications that had little to do with us. But it prevented us from realizing our participative film project in Kiribati as planned. Only nobody would tell us explicitly. We were told to wait. And wait again. And wait some more. We were waiting in the right place at the wrong time.

Our approach convinced everyone, also at government level even if it sometimes took some effort. Still, they were all very cautious. There had been too many unpleasant experiences with foreign filmmakers and journalists, who arrived with preconceived ideas in Kiribati, with stories they only wanted to illustrate with the right pictures, without any interest whatsoever in what Kiribati really is like. They came with their ready-made scripts, written within two weeks and shot just for a week or two. The most outrageous story was that of the Japanese ARD office, which wanted to film a fisherman who studied at the Marine Training Center in Tarawa and returns to his home island on a traditional small catamaran. They were just looking for the right person. Only too bad that these boats are rarely suitable for the high seas, are out of fashion in Kiribati and above all that such a fisherman was nowhere to be found.

So we were making progress. We felt the wind in our sails. We did not bring any stories in our heads, and so we told the government. In our workshops, we wanted to induce the people of Kiribati to tell their own stories of which we knew nothing and could not know until we would hear them.

It seemed like a good strategy and it was the truth.

At this stage the government seemed to look at our project almost favorable. But then something happened that made the truth a bad argument. It dissolved any pleasure the government might have had in the idea that people on Kiribati would tell themselves what was important and true to them.

A ferry sank on the way from Nonouti to Tarawa. Almost one hundred people sought shelter in the too few lifeboats and drowned or died of thirst or of the scorching heat over six agonizing days on the open ocean, long before the authorities had even an idea of ​​the disaster.

Criticism of the government became loud. A demonstration was broken up by the police, people were quickly removed and placed under house arrest. But the social media could not be kept quiet by the government. People read and discussed the reports and speeches on the causes of the disaster on Facebook. It was about the affordable but missing position detectors on the ferries, the dilapidated state of the ferry, which nevertheless left for a 2 days crossing of the wide ocean. It was above all about the failure of the government to enforce laws on security measures that look beautiful on paper, but never were implemented in reality.

Abflug Tarawa Atoll

On the background of these changed circumstances our participatory approach did not fit at all anymore. The government was afraid of loud criticism from the population. A New Zealand reporter team was prevented from reporting on the ferry accident on Kiribati, they were forced to delete their data, ie interviews and photos. Again and again, the reporters were asked if they would write about climate change. The political situation is sharpening on Kiribati, the new government wants to establish their power and tries to isolate itself to the outside. Journalists have to leave, foreign film crews no longer get filming permits and/or are not allowed to enter. On the radio, the population was even called on to report tourists with movie cameras to the police. When taking pictures we were repeatedly asked who we were, what we did here and if we had a film permission. The police inquired about us with our landlord. Hidden interviews were out of the question. Because there is no secret, lonely places on the main island of South Tarawa. Also, we did not want to get our friends and acquaintances and climate change activists, who would have liked to work with us, into trouble.

We were not prepared for Kiribati’s changed political line. The aim of our project was quite different, namely not to work in secret, but to create the highest level of publicity, to invite people to participate in our workshops and to develop the ideas for the film together with them. In a climate of rising anxiety and persistent uncertainty, that was impossible.

They gave us the runaround concerning the decision on the film permission, let us wait indefinitely. Soon our tourist visas would expire. Therefore we ourselves decided to pull up stakes and leave Kiribati. We moved to the Marshall Islands. Another small island nation in the middle of the vast Southern Pacific, threatened by climate change, awaiting a similar fate as Kiribati. But there is one key difference: the government’s open management of the effects of climate change. And here, too, there is a strong social base of movements that concern themselves with climate change.

Arrival on Majuro

Despite these unhappy experiences in Kiribati we do not consider our 7 weeks there as wasted time, but are very grateful for the experience. We are happy about the many small and large encounters with people, which allowed us an insight into the culture and the politics of this island state. Mark captured some of those moments on his photo blog. (Kameradist Wagner) We always felt welcome to all we met and the interest in the project was great. We hope for a rethinking of the government and also for being able to return to Kiribati in the not too distant future to shoot some material there.

We would like to thank all our friends from Kiribati for their warmth, their confidence, their openness, the joking and the shared laughter. We will miss you very much! Kabuta, never stop playing the guitar and singing, even if you’re going to be an old pastor. Abe, one day you will be the president and then a very, very old cat without tail will be your guide. Kataunati, you’re sure to go to sea and see the world. Hey, and Aurora: You can do that and Abe will help you.

„Friendlist people in the pacific.“

Kam bati n rabwa
(Thank you all!)

Text and photos: Christina Schulze

“Un Toe” and clapping three times

It is Saturday evening. Since our arrival we have met many people and despite the short time already made friends. One of them is Kabuta, a pastor to be who likes to smoke and drink a beer once in a while and continuously invites us to drink Kawa with him. And today the time has come.

In advance, we discussed in the group who stays with Maira and Christina agreed to do that, which Mark and me appreciate very much, since we did not want to miss out on such an experience, especially since the Kawa bar is right next to us, barely 200 meters from our house.

Kabuta picked us up at 7 pm. First we dined together. Then we got on the way.

The Kawa bar is a simple house. Nondescript. Or not. Only a few hanging strings of lights and flowers make it different from the other houses around. We are the first ones to arrive there. Kabuta and one of the people of the house spread out mats on the ground. Another person starts with the preparation of the drink.
We sit in a circle. A plastic bowl with a liquid that looks similar to water-milled healing clay is brought to us and placed in the middle. Also a ladle and plastic cups for everyone. I already start recording the scene with one of our small cameras and will continue to do so in the next hours.

Kabuta explains: at the very beginning of the round, “Un Toe” is called followed by tree claps. Similar as in Germany, drinking cheers are said. The kawa ritual is a tradition from Fiji. The cup is to be emptied in one go. The stuff tastes like it looks, tongue and palate get slightly numb.

The bar fills up. Several groups join in and form new circles.
Again and again we hear “Un Toe” … clap, clap, clap.
A guitar is brought forward, out of nowhere. With only 5 strings. That’s typical here. Why? We owe you the explanation, but we will find out.
One plays. Everyone is singing along, often in polyphonic harmonies. It sounds perfect and yet spontaneous.
We play and sing too.
A feast.
Hard to describe. Quit an experience.

We look at each other and briefly discuss: the music for the documentary we have found here in any case. Although the Kawa music shall not be heard all the time in the movie, we certainly found the musicians to compose the future soundtrack.
Of course we give you a little sample here.
But we were not allowed to record much, and only with our camcorder, since we are (still) on vacation. 😉