Nuclear Weapons and Climate Change in the Marshall Islands – Speech given by Selina Leem, a student from the Marshall Islands, during the 2015 Geneva Peace Week

Iakwe nan kom aolep,

My name is Selina Leem and I am from the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands, located half-way between Hawai’i and Australia, encompasses a total of 34 islands and atoll and home to approximately 72,000 inhabitants. My country is currently active on the fields of climate change as many of the islands in my country is barely a meter above sea-level, and inundations have become more frequent through-out the years, killing our crops, displacing people, and eating into the land as it crashes onto us.

We are not only active in the fields of climate change, but we are also active on the fight against nuclear weapons.

“Aelon kein ad. Aelon kein ad.” In English, “Our land. Our land.” Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony deBrum, emphasized on his speech when he accepted his award in Washington D.C., USA this October. When asked by the Europeans who, no, did not discover our islands, but happen to come across our islands, what our country’s name was? This was the answer, “Aelon kein ad.” “Our land.” And so it is for our land, for our country, that I stand in front of you all today, to speak of what my ancestors went through due to the nuclear testing conducted by the United States government from the year 1954, all the way to 1968.

“For the good of mankind…” started the United States government officer. “… to end all world-wars.” Our Chief, to whom the officer was communicating to, did not understand a word of English, nor did the rest who were with him. The one word our chief was able to grasp was ‘mankind’, and he thought ‘mankind’ meant God. So he replied back, “In the name of God, I am willing to let my people go.” I repeat, “In the name of God, I am willing to let my people go.” The officer then made a promised he never should have made. He promised everyone that he would return them back soon.

The question though, “When is soon?” To the chief and his people who left, soon could be tomorrow, the week after, a month from now. To them, they were definitely coming back. To us islanders, land is extremely important, especially to us women. Our society is a matrilineal society, so everything is passed through the women, land and power. In the past, when a man and woman married, the man moved in with the wife, and not the other way around. The wife had the land. Land and power that is passed through women, gave us the status highly coveted in our society. Without our land, we as women, are stripped of our rights. I, as a woman, am stripped off my rights.

Soon for those who left, it did not and never meant forever. It meant that they were coming back. And they did. Three years after the bombing. Yet their land was still contaminated, so they all had to leave again. And this time, never came back.

The United States government, tested in total 67 atomic bombs in my country, successfully ridding four of our islands off the face of the earth. All these bombings equals to ½ Hiroshima bomb going off every day in the Marshall Islands for 12 years. With the 67 atomic bombs, was the infamous Bravo bomb that was felt throughout the many islands in our country. The Bravo bomb sent white ash over the islands. Ms. Lijon Eknilang, who was a witness to this horrendous bomb, said that all the villagers ran outside their house when they saw the light in the sky and the great sound, and saw white particles cascading down the air. They believed it was snow. They had never seen any but they had heard about it from missionaries and the other westerners and thought it was snow.

Soon after, everybody fell sick. Lijon Eknilang recalls how hair loss, blisters, thyroid, and miscarriages started happening. Miscarriages. Something that Marshallese women rarely came across. They were having miscarriages. And for those who gave birth, they gave birth to disfigured babies. Lijon Eknilang, herself, gave birth to a child that had only one eye. Lijon Eknilang said the women back then hid their miscarriages from their husbands and closed ones because it is taught in our culture and religion that a child born disfigured, is a sign of infidelity. Women, who did not understand their condition, had to hide away in shame for fear of people saying she committed adultery.

Even nowadays, you can still see the effects of the Bravo bomb. Just because you were not there, does not mean you will not be affected. The United States government said only four islands were affected, and they are Enewetak, Rongelap, Utrik, and Bikini. But to be honest, it was not just these four islands. It was the entire of Marshall Islands that was affected. Yet, since the United States government claimed that it was only these four islands that were affected, put the first letter of the island’s name together. They make E-R-U-B (spell in English). It means broken. We are broken.

I am from Utrik. My family is from Utrik. My aunt is from Utrik. She lost two of her child. Both of them had yellow, white, and black hair. Their skin, a yellowish pallor. They both had very sharp nails and wrinkly skin. I remember when I gazed into my little cousin’s face, I felt like I was looking at an old man with a very tiny face. This little cousin of mine had only one ear and his intestines were twisted. You could see them through his belly-button.

He was sent to Hawai’i for surgery. He came back, and died few days after he arrive. I have never had a child and lost one, but I have lost loved ones and the pain I must be going through, cannot compare to their pain. To watch your child, not knowing what is going on with him, and not knowing what to do. The helplessness.

As if it does not make matters worse, Enewetak had a major clean-up from the year 1977-1980, after many complaints from the people. In Enewetak, 43 nuclear weapons were tested here. As the northern part of the island was too contaminated, they did only the southern part. In this southern part, Runit Dome was built. This dome was used to dumb all the nuclear waste product gathered from the cleaning.

Currently, this dome is eroding. It has already cracked open and its contents are oozing out through these cracks. Now it has been tested that the outside of the dome is more contaminated than the inside. It is not just erosion we are talking about. It is climate change too. Water levels are rising at a very frightening rate. As the water rises, waves can easily crash onto the dome, cracking it further. Soon, it will submerge the entire dome under the sea, if scientists’ predictions are correct that by 2050, my islands will be gone. And if it completely breaks in the ocean, there is no stopping its spreading. It will kill marine lives and affect many close by.

There are also people living nearby. They are not aware of this. Many Marshallese are not aware of this dome.

Currently, the United States government is using Kwajalein, one of our island and the biggest atoll in the world, as a military base. It is using it to test missiles sent from the US. They have moved all the people into a tiny island, only 66 acres of land. When the moved the people, there was only 8,000 people but now, it has grown. It is one of the most densely populated places in the world. I was talking to a teacher who lives on this island and she said every time a missile lands on our lagoon side, people start getting sick. They are sick in the stomach, sick in the head. They are sick.

My country is not rich. We do not have the money, the infrastructure, the technology to fix what has been dumped on us. First, we are displaced, then contaminated, and a lot of us died. Now we are faced with this threat in Runit island and climate change.

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