Atonement for the hibakusha
By DATUK DR RONALD MCCOY
Every year on Aug 6, people gather in Hiroshima to remind the world of a human tragedy that should never occur again.
THE atomic bomb was secretly developed during World War II at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, United States, by a group of scientists led by J. Robert Oppenheimer. Joseph Rotblat was the only scientist who resigned from what was known as the Manhattan Project when he realised that the work on the bomb was continuing although the war was nearly over.
Three deadly atomic bombs were put together. The first was tested in the desert north of Almagordo in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45am. Nobel laureate physicist I. Rabi, who witnessed the Trinity test, later described it:
“Suddenly, there was an enormous flash of light, the brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone has ever seen. It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way right through you. It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye. It was seen to last forever. You would wish it would stop; altogether it lasted about two seconds.
“Finally, it was over, diminishing, and we looked toward the place where the bomb had been; there was an enormous ball of fire which grew and grew and it rolled as it grew; it went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green. It looked menacing. It seemed to come toward me.”
Oppenheimer was moved to recall words in the sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
On Aug 6, the second bomb, called “Little Boy”, was detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima at 8.15am. Over 70,000 people were killed instantly and about the same number were injured. Three days later, “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki at 11:01am, instantly killing 40,000 people.
By the end of 1945, 220,000 people in both cities, mostly civilians, had succumbed to burns, radiation, leukaemia and other diseases. The casualties included 22,000 Korean conscripts.
Today, 64 years later, the cancer rate among the survivors continues to rise. Surviving victims are known as hibakusha, a Japanese word that literally means “explosion-affected people”. Memorials in Hiroshima and Nagasaki emblazon the names of hibakusha who have died, updated annually on the anniversaries of the bombings. In August 2008, there were 258,301 names in Hiroshima and 145,984 in Nagasaki.
The “ethical” justification by the United States for what is inherently immoral, a war crime and a form of state terrorism, is based on the claim that the bombings led to the rapid conclusion of the war and the saving of thousands of American and Japanese lives that would have been lost in the planned invasion of Japan.
The fundamental issue is whether such an argument can justify the deliberate plan to obliterate two cities and kill thousands of civilians and ignore the fact that the bombings were militarily unnecessary, that they violated international humanitarian law and the laws of war, and they appeared to have the markings of a diabolical military and scientific experiment.
Every year on Aug 6, the Mayor of Hiroshima leads a ceremony in the Peace Memorial Park to assuage the bitter memories of the world’s first nuclear explosion in war and plead for the abolition of nuclear weapons and an end to militarism and war.
The mayor delivers a Peace Declaration, which is conveyed to every country in the world, expressing Hiroshima’s wish for a world free of nuclear weapons. At exactly 8:15am, the Peace Bell is rung and the sound of sirens is heard all over the city. The whole of Hiroshima is silent for one minute.
World leaders visiting certain countries in Europe often feel obliged to visit sites like Auschwitz and other concentration camps, where 20 million people – of which six million were Jews – were gassed or died of disease or starvation. Perhaps weighed down by feelings of guilt, they do not make similar gestures by visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No serving United States leader has ever done so. Perhaps, Barack Obama will be the first.
It is uncommon to find former enemies joining in common atonement of a shared human tragedy in war. Yet, that is what Hiroshima and Nagasaki symbolise – a recognition and acknowledgement of our common humanity in which we can find redemption and the political will never again to repeat the same mistake.
Their citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who have rebuilt their lives, have dedicated their cities – once again whole and thriving with life – to peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons. They urge us all to forgive and atone, but never to forget that never again shall there be another such cruelty. Never again shall there be hibakusha.
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) has worked faithfully to rid the world of its nuclear weapons since 1980, spurred on by its Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.
In 1970, the world’s governments agreed to abolish nuclear weapons through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but they have not lived up to their promises. Today, 23,000 nuclear weapons remain in the arsenals of the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and now, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The continued possession of nuclear weapons means the risk of their use by accident, miscalculation or intent. It also stimulates others to acquire them. The abolition of nuclear weapons is possible, necessary and increasingly urgent.
IPPNW recently launched an International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (Ican). Its aim is zero nuclear weapons. Ican is focused on mobilising ordinary citizens around the world to support and take action for nuclear abolition, and convincing governments to negotiate a nuclear weapons convention to ban nuclear weapons, in the same way that chemical and biological weapons have been banned.
Today, the world is seriously concerned about global warming and climate change. By a strange quirk of changing circumstances, the nuclear industry is promoting nuclear energy as a solution to climate change. Some states are buying into this seriously flawed promotion, including Malaysia, despite the problem of radioactive nuclear waste, which will last for thousands of years, as there is no method of safely disposing of the waste. So-called “fast breeder reactors” are merely theoretical solutions to waste disposal.
Introducing the peaceful use of nuclear energy into any country increases its capacity to develop nuclear weapons. Every additional country with this capacity increases the probability of nuclear war.
It is highly unlikely that Malaysia’s strong support for nuclear abolition will change, but the introduction of nuclear energy will create a perception among our neighbours that we have enhanced our capacity to develop nuclear weapons.
This in turn could trigger policies in other South-East Asian countries to develop nuclear weapons, leading to a regional nuclear arms race.
As we remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we owe it to the hibakusha to work unrelentingly toward a verifiable and enforceable nuclear weapons convention that will lead to a world without nuclear weapons.
Next week: Nuclear energy – green or black?
> Datuk Dr Ronald McCoy is a past president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.