For the first time in its history, on March 22, Peace Boat docked in the port of Majuro, in the Republic of the Marshall Islands as part of its 90th Global Voyage. With a population just over 60.000, this republic of 29 atolls and five islands covers more than 1.6 million square kilometres of the central Pacific, and is made up of two island chains known as the Ralik (sunrise) Chain and the Ratak (sunset) Chain. The Marshall Islands have many things in common with other Pacific nations, such as the food culture (mainly eating fish from coral reefs, with many coconut dishes), and a peaceful lifestyle in coexistence with the ocean. However, the Marshall Islands also share a very dark past. For 12 years, from 1946 to 1958, the United States Army detonated 67 nuclear bombs in different atolls for testing. The total explosive power of the nuclear tests in the area equalled 108 megatons. To put this level of testing at the Bikini and Enewetak Atolls in perspective, this could be said to be equal to 1.6 Hiroshima bombs being detonated every day for the 12 years of testing.
Recently, the tiny Pacific state began an extraordinary legal challenge against the world's nuclear powers, aiming to reinvigorate momentum towards global nuclear disarmament. In 2014, the country filed applications at the International Court of Justice against all nine known or suspected nuclear weapons states claiming they have violated their nuclear disarmament obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and customary international law. To date, only the cases against the UK, India and Pakistan have reached the current preliminary stage of proceedings before the court, because the other six nations have refused to participate.
During the voyage across the Pacific Ocean, from Papeete to Yokohama, Peace Boat is holding a conference called Pacific Peace Forum. This meeting consisted of a series of lectures, workshops and other activities, with the aim of increasing awareness of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war and catastrophes as well as building solidarity amongst affected communities. The forum has welcomed participants from Tahiti, Japan (Fukushima and Hiroshima), and the Marshall Islands. Once in Majuro, the Pacific Peace Forum delegation was received by the local authorities before starting a visit to different points of interest in the city. The delegation visited the Alele Museum, a space where it is possible to learn about the history and the culture of the Marshall Islands. There, the visitors also saw photos and documents related to the nuclear tests that took place in the country.
After visiting the museum, the Pacific Peace Forum delegation visited the Bikini Atoll Town Hall. There they met Jack Niedenthal, a native of Pennsylvania, US who married a Bikini islander and has lived in the area for 30 years. He works as an advisor to the Bikinians and represents their interests to the outside world. He explained to the visitors about the history of the nuclear tests in the area. In 1946, the US military evacuated Enewetak, Rongelap and Wotho islanders for their safety before the first Hiroshima-sized atomic tests were conducted at the Bikin Atoll. However, before the Bravo test in 1954- a test that was expected to be at least 250 times (and was actually 1000 times) the size of the Hiroshima bomb- the people were not evacuated. Unsuspecting Rongelap Islanders were hit with a dangerous dose of radiation exposure, and more than 20 atolls were exposed to Bravo test fallout. Three years after Bravo, Rongelap people were moved back to their home even though Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) scientists knew that Rongelap was highly radioactive. In 1985, Rongelap Islanders evacuated their home island because they feared they were being slowly poisoned by radiation contaminated food and water.
Listening to this story was a very moving moment for all those present; especially for Sato Kenta, from Fukushima. He is from a small village called Iitate, and was evacuated in April 2011 after the devastating Great Eastern Japan earthquake and tsunami and ensuing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster. "Although our history is very different, there are many common points. The Bikini inhabitants cannot return to their atoll and I cannot return to my village due to the radiation. I identified strongly with their history", he reflected.
After this visit and lunch in a Majuro hotel, the delegation returned to the ship where a symposium on nuclear issues, organised together with the Marshallese NGO REACH-MI (Radiation Exposure Awareness Crusaders for Humanity-Marshall Islands). Sato Kenta, Miyake Nobuo, a survivor from Hiroshima, and Michel Arakino, a nuclear test worker from Tahiti, explained their histories to a group of young people from the islands.
In the same event Lemeyo Abon, from Rongelap Atoll, also gave her testimony. This 79-year-old woman was forced to leave her homeland in 1954, when she was seven years old. "Back then we did not have any information. We did not even know anything about the radiation. What the US Army did here was horrible. And even today we do not know all the truth", she said.
Amongst the participants of this event and visit to the ship were members from the environmental organisation Jo-Jikum, students from the College of The Marshall Islands and other local community members. Among the group there was a young Marshallese woman, Kathy Jetnil Kijiner. Kathy became well known internationally after giving a moving spoken word presentation during the opening ceremony of the UN Climate Leaders Summit in New York in 2014. "It has been a very interesting experience to listen to the testimonies of these people, all from different places, but with many things in common. It is necessary to get to know and explain these experiences so everyone can learn about what happened and raise awareness", she commented.
Undoubtedly, the visit to the Marshall Islands was a very important moment for all participants in the Pacific Peace Forum. In Majuro, two representatives of Marshallese civil society, Desmond Doulatram and Brooke Takala Abraham, joined the voyage and will continue to travel together with the group until Yokohama and Fukushima.