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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Feb. 27) - Fifty years after America tested its most powerful hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll, many Marshall Islanders watch in anger as the world’s most powerful nation lavishes billions of dollars on Iraq and Afghanistan but has halted funding for a medical program for nuclear test victims and is dragging its feet on a request for $2 billion in compensation.

"Why should we have to beg the United States to get funding for our medical problems that are directly related to their nuclear bombs they tested on us?" asks Rongelap Islander Lijon Eknilang, who was eight years old when radioactive fallout rained down on her unsuspecting island village in 1954.

Eknilang, like many of the 86 Rongelap Islanders exposed to massive levels of radiation from the March 1, 1954 Bravo hydrogen bomb test, has had surgery for thyroid cancer and breast cancer, and says she is also suffering from liver problems.

In their haste to show the Russians that America had a deliverable H-bomb, United States officials ignored warnings that winds were blowing toward inhabited islands and detonated Bravo, irrevocably affecting thousands of Marshall Islanders with a radioactive legacy that 50 years on has not been put to rest.

March 1 is now marked as a national holiday in the Marshall Islands, and known globally as "Bikini Day." The day of the fallout is a bittersweet memory for nuclear test victims now that they have received some nuclear test compensation but who largely believe that America is now turning its back on people whose health and land it damaged with a total of 67 nuclear weapons tests.

"The United States promised us that as soon as it was finished at Bikini, it would return us safely to our home islands," said Bikini Sen. Tomaki Juda, who was four years old when the U.S. Navy evacuated Bikini Islanders in 1946 for the first post-World War II nuclear weapons tests.

"We’re still waiting for that promise."

The four atolls acknowledged by the U.S. government as "exposed" — Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap and Utrik — have received a portion of the $270 million compensation package in the first Compact, and in the case of Bikini and Rongelap, additional nuclear clean up funding. But according to a ruling by the U.S.-funded Nuclear Claims Tribunal, this is but a fraction of the hardship, loss of use and nuclear cleanup compensation these islands deserve.

The Tribunal has already awarded Bikini and Enewetak an additional $1 billion; claims for Rongelap and Utrik are pending and are expected to add close to another billion dollars to the compensation price tag. Meanwhile, the U.S. gave the Tribunal only $45 million, to satisfy both personal injury claims — already in excess of $70 million — and the land damage claims.

Since Sept. 2000, the Marshall Islands has had a petition before the U.S. Congress asking for $2 billion more in compensation. The Congress asked the Bush administration in March 2002 to review the nuclear test compensation petition, but two years later, there is still no response from the administration.

Despite the contamination of the test sites and downwind islands, islanders are determined to go home — if it’s safe.

In a country with only 72 square miles of land on 1,200 scattered islands, land is precious. "If you don’t have land, you are nothing," says Juda. The Bikinians still live in exile nearly 60 years since moving, Enewetak Islanders can only live on the southern half of their atoll because the northern islands are still too "hot," and Rongelap Islanders have lived in exile since 1985, when, fearful of continuing radiation exposure, they organized a self-evacuation with the aid of the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior.

Utrik Islanders, the farthest from the Bravo test fallout and who in the Cold War days of the 1950s were said to have received a "low-level" exposure, are now demanding a cleanup fund for their islands. They had the misfortune to have been returned home within three months of the Bravo test and, say independent scientists hired recently by Utrik Islanders to assess the safety of these islands, the people who had not been there during the Bravo test but who moved back later actually received a higher radiation dose from continuously living in and eating food from a still radioactive environment.

Rongelap Islanders were just 100 miles from Bikini and within a few hours of the Bravo test were standing ankle deep in fallout ash. "The whole island was covered with the powder, all the leaves on the trees, our water catchments," recalls Rokko Langinbelik, a Rongelap councilwoman who was 12 years old in 1954.

"The ash that fell on us really itched and burned our skin. My skin was blistered and later half my hair fell out."

Rongelap and Utrik islanders were finally evacuated two-to-three days after Bravo, beginning an ordeal that has seen both populations experience astronomically high rates of thyroid tumors and cancers, and many other health problems.

Today, Rongelap Islanders may be the closest to going home as a U.S.-funded resettlement program is expected to begin building houses on Rongelap later this year, following preliminary construction work over the past several years to establish basic infrastructure on the abandoned island, including an airfield, dock and a power plant.

But test victims say the American obligation to these islands cannot just suddenly end. "I would love to return to my home island," says Eknilang. "If they said it is safe, I will go home. But they (the U.S.) need to take care of my sickness until I die."

Juda and other islanders see an irony in the U.S. government’s promise of tens of billions of dollars for Iraq and Afghanistan, but the apparent unwillingness of the U.S. government to resolve the problem that its nuclear tests caused. U.S. officials, when asked about Marshall Islanders’ demands for more compensation, say emphatically that the $270 million in the first Compact was a "full and final" settlement.

"President Bush has told the entire world that the damage in Iraq and Afghanistan is a U.S. responsibility," says Juda. "What’s difference between Bikini and Iraq?"

"I’m just hoping that those who caused this realize the hardship that they caused us," says Eknilang. "They hurt us, and now they don’t want to take care of us."

The recent cut off of $2 million in annual U.S. funding for a comprehensive health care program for the people from the four nuclear test-affected atolls has incensed islanders.

"March 1 is a sad day not only for Bikinians but for all Marshallese affected (by the bomb)," says Juda. "We didn’t understand that these H-bombs would bring a big sorrow to us. When older people think about what these bombs did to our islands it brings tears to their eyes.

"We spent years waiting to return home. Then, in the early 1970s the Americans told us it was safe, so some of us returned. But they had to be evacuated a short time later (because of high radiation levels). It broke our heart."

This, Juda says, is why the Bikinians will not return home until they receive a "guarantee" from the U.S. that Bikini is safe.

"America is number one in education, in rich people and" — Juda pauses for emphasis — "in lies.

"It is trying to run away from its promise to us. That’s why many people are angry with the United States."

February 27, 2004

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