Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Nuclear Guinea Pigs

On the eve of APEC, the US continues to ignore the reparations claims of Marshall Islanders

In the old-timey section of Kalihi, tucked between auto repair shops and boarded-up storefronts, Maza Attari, a Marshall Islander, lived with four family members in a one-bedroom apartment barely bigger than a ping-pong table. When visited by this reporter last summer, Attari had been unable to find steady work since being flown to Honolulu 12 years ago for back surgery that had left him with a severe limp and weakened muscles.

Attari’s circumstances exemplify the far-reaching impacts of nuclear testing upon irradiated, exiled or dislocated Marshall Islanders. From 1946 to 1962, their home atolls served as experimental grounds where the US detonated nuclear weapons and tested delivery systems in the transition from conventional to intercontinental bombers. In all, the US exploded 86 nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands, which are situated 3,000 miles west of Honolulu. Those 86 bombs equated to 8,580 Hiroshima-size bombs–or 1.4 weapons per day for 16 years.

A one-time magistrate and mayor on Utrik, Attari said last summer that he doubted he would be able to return there, prophesying instead, “I’m going to stay here until I die.” He died in September of this year, without ever receiving the reparations that he and other nuclear victims have claimed.

The debt

It is a debt that is not only owed them, but that has compounded over time. Because these nuclear weapons experiments were too dangerous and unpredictable to be conducted on the US mainland, Attari and other Marshallese are part of the reason for America’s superpower status today. A half-century later, the Marshall Islands continue to serve as a crucial part of an outer defense periphery for the US heartland–6,000 miles away. That periphery includes the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, where for more than three decades missiles fired from 4,000 miles away (at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California) have crashed near Kwajalein Atoll, horribly frightening the indigenous inhabitants and leaving them unsure of where the debris will fall. More