Nuclear survivors' testimony: from hell to hope

Participants at the HINW Conference were screened for nuclear contamination yesterday, before listening to testimony from survivors mobilising for the abolition of nuclear weapons in what Pope Francis called "our common home."

Rebecca Johnson
9 December 2014

This is the second of three reports by Rebecca Johnson from the HINW conference in Vienna this week. Read article one: Gathering speed to ban nuclear weapons.

As I arrived at the famous Hofburg Palace in Vienna to attend the Third International Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons (HINW) I was met by Austrian Red Cross personnel in full radiation suits.  As civil society and government representatives reached the entrance, we were told that we had to be checked for nuclear contamination before going any further.  A Geiger counter was passed up and down my body, especially focussing on my face, hands, legs and feet.  The Red Cross official was speaking to me, but I couldn’t hear him well through the radiation mask covering his face.  I felt my anxiety levels rising as I struggled to understand that he was telling me that I had suffered “some exposure to radioactive contamination” and would need to get “decontaminated”. He gave me a white tag to wear, marked “Victim Contamination Control Record”, showing the hotspots on my body. More radiation-suited officials escorted me to another line, where I was “decontaminated” – at least theoretically. The exercise ended there.  Instead of being stripped and showered, my skin scrubbed and scoured, and my clothes destroyed, as a real decontamination process would require, I was ushered through today’s “normal security” checks – a bag search and metal detector. 

The Austrian Red Cross action was extraordinarily effective as a way to make the Conference delegates wake up and think about what life would be like for survivors after nuclear bomb detonations. Watching the reactions of some of the diplomats going through this Victim Contamination Control process, I saw some try treating it as a joke, while others played along, and some even showed impatience – important people with a big conference to go to, not liking to be delayed by people wielding radiation detectors, even if they were from the Red Cross. Whatever their initial reactions, however, their faces reflected anxiety and nervousness.  “It makes you think” I overheard one diplomat say, and hoped the thinking would lead to constructive action.

The Conference was opened by the Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, who reminded everyone that there are over 16,000 nuclear warheads, distributed among 14 countries (9 nuclear armed states and 5 NATO hosts). He emphasised that “As long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk of their use - on purpose or by accident - remains real”.

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon’s statement welcomed that the humanitarian “initiatives” had “energized civil society and Governments alike”. Noting that conferences like this have “compelled us to keep in mind the horrific consequences that would result from any use of nuclear weapons”, the Secretary-General expressed his hope that “all participants come away with new resolve to pursue effective measures for the achievement of nuclear disarmament”.

For the first time, Pope Francis also sent a message about nuclear weapons, in which he stated: “Spending on nuclear weapons squanders the wealth of nations.  To prioritise such spending is a mistake and a misallocation of resources which would be far better invested in the areas of integral human development, education, health and the fight against extreme poverty.  When these resources are squandered, the poor and the weak living on the margins of society pay the price.”  Referring particularly to the “unnecessary suffering” brought on by the use of nuclear weapons, as well as their capacity for “mass killing”, Pope Francis argued that “if such suffering is banned in the waging of conventional war, then it should all the more be banned in nuclear conflict.”   Expressing the hope that “the desire for peace and fraternity planted deep in the human heart will bear fruit in concrete ways to ensure that nuclear weapons are banned once and for all, to the benefit of our common home”, Pope Francis called on governments and civil society to take responsibility “for a world without nuclear weapons is truly possible”.

Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) argued: “the global and long-term humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, which we have heard about at the Oslo and Nayarit meetings, raise profound questions about the limits of warfare and the capacity of the human species to prevent foreseeable catastrophic events.” He noted: “Nuclear weapons are often viewed as a tool of security, particularly during times of international instability. But weapons that risk catastrophic and irreversible humanitarian consequences cannot seriously be viewed as protecting civilians or humanity as a whole.” Looking towards solutions, Maurer was clear that “more must be done to fulfill commitments to diminish the role and significance of nuclear weapons in military plans, doctrines and policies and to reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons systems.” He wanted urgent action to reduce the risk of accidental use of nuclear weapons, and the indefinite continuation of the “nearly 70 year history of non-use of nuclear weapons”. He concluded that “the only way to ensure this is to enshrine the non-use and complete elimination of nuclear weapons in a legally binding international agreement,” as the ICRC had collectively called for in 2011.

The most powerful statement of all came from Setsuko Thurlow, who was 13 years old when the first atomic bomb, codenamed “Little Boy” destroyed her “beautiful home city” of Hiroshima. She was pulled out of the rubble, hearing classmates crying for help and water, as fires engulfed their bodies. She described the “ghostly figures” she saw as she fled for the hills, some with their skin “hanging down from their bones” and carrying their own eyeballs, Setsuko made clear her determination to work for the complete banning and elimination of nuclear weapons as the only way to make sure that no-one else would have to suffer what she and her classmates and family suffered. 

There were further moving testimonies from survivors of nuclear testing. Abacca Anjain-Maddison testified about the appalling consequences of US nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, where the “Castle Bravo” bomb test on 1 March 1954 was far larger than the testers expected. She spoke of children playing in snow that they had never seen before – the dusty fallout that caused them terrible ill health. She spoke of being evacuated – exiled from their homes and islands – of “jellyfish babies” and other tragic monstrosities born from the radioactive contamination that spread through the Marshall Islands, briefly mentioning the court case launched by the Marshall Islands to pressure the nuclear-armed states to end and eliminate their nuclear weapons and programmes.  Sue Coleman-Haseldine also spoke of contamination and exile… the legacy of her Aboriginal People after the UK conducted nuclear tests and plutonium dispersal trials in Australia. And then Michelle Thomas of HEAL Utah told of how she was sacrificed to the Cold War while still in her mother’s womb, saying: “My country nuclear bombed us, not the Russians”.

These brief snapshots are intended only to give a flavour of the breadth and significance of the presentations on the first day of the Vienna Conference.  It would have been good also to have heard testimonies from "down-winders" - people living near nuclear tests conducted by the other nuclear-armed states. But with much to cram into the agenda, the conference heard a range of panellists who addressed nuclear doctrine, operations, failures of deterrence in theory and practice, risks, accidents and other human and technological mistakes and nuclear dangers.  It was impossible to avoid noticing that the majority of experts talking about the theoretical and technical aspects were men, while the survivors who spoke were women. And that Setsuko, Abacca, Sue and Michelle were not passive “victims”, but intelligent, determined and inspirational campaigners telling their stories to mobilise for the prohibition and abolition of all nuclear weapons.

As many statements as possible will be posted on the websites of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The programme on the second day includes a session on international norms and the use of nuclear weapons, followed by a debate with statements from the national delegations and civil society representatives on the floor. These will be live-streamed and tweeted. 

 A concluding analysis from Rebecca Johnson will be published on Friday 12 December. 

Read more articles in our dialogue Towards Nuclear Non-proliferation.


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