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Between the Devil and the Deep Blue: Marshall Islanders Face Nuclear Fallout and Rising Seas

The Marshall Islands are beset by two manmade disasters–the catastrophic legacy of nuclear testing and the creeping consequences of climate change. We spoke to a local poet and activist about the challenges.

From 1948, the United States government spent a decade blasting the Marshall Islands with 67 nuclear weapon tests. The largest, dropped on the Bikini atoll in 1954, had an impact around a thousand times greater than Hiroshima's bombs. The atoll is still uninhabitable due to its radiation levels. Today, the Islands have some of the highest cancer rates in the world. The United States gave the islanders a cash settlement of $150 million in reparation. The independent Nuclear Claims Tribunal awarded the Marshallese Islands a further $2.3 billion in health and property damages in 2001, but the money's been left unpaid.


While the nuclear radiation from the tests still permeates the white beaches of the islands, the Marshall Islands now face a new threat to their land and people: sea level rise, thanks to climate change.

Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner is a poet and community worker from the Marshallese Islands whose poetry "mainly focuses on raising awareness surrounding the issues and threats faced by my people". VICE called her just after Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day to talk about the past and future of her home.

VICE: Hey Kathy, thanks for making the time to talk to us. When did you start using poetry as a means to protest?
Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner: Well, my first poem was when I was in fifth grade and it was about an invisible elephant. And then it kind of just became this thing, it just flowed out of me when I wanted to understand the world around me.

But it wasn't necessarily something that I saw as a tool until I began to do spoken word. It was really through spoken word that I noticed how you could connect with the audience and I saw that as an opportunity to share the stories that I don't ever hear. What I learnt from spoken word was then sharpened further when I began the Poetry for the People programme at UC Berkeley. Poetry for the People teaches us all about poetry from people of colour. We studied African American poetry, we studied Arab American poetry, Native American poetry—and we would study how each culture used it and what kind of political climate it reflected.


So I was always taught that poetry needs to do more than just be pretty, poetry needs to have a purpose—that poetry can speak for a movement. So from there I just began to use poetry for the Marshallese movement, for the Marshallese people. No one else is really doing that, using poetry as a vehicle to deliver those stories.

In History Project you talk about people losing children due to nuclear weapon exposure. How has fallout exposure impacted on your own family?
Well, I mean both my grandparents passed away from cancer before I was born. I found out last year from my mother that they were slated to get funding for their cancers, you know because you have to be approved and they have to say "oh your cancer's definitely related to radiation,  here's some funding for you to seek medical attention". They were slated for that, and it's interesting because they weren't from Bikini or the four atolls [that had been tested on] and yet they had cancers that were definitely related to radiation. But they died before they could get medical attention.

Besides that, my niece was six years old when she died from leukaemia recently. And I mean, I don't know, she's young and you don't know if—you never know [if it was caused by the nuclear fallout]…that's the thing with Marshallese [cancers]…I can only speak for myself, but I'm at that stage where I'm learning how much the doctors and researchers who first came here to do the nuclear testing programme lied, how much they stole from us and it has made me feel this resentment towards the entire field.


I don't know if what anyone is telling me is true. And so, when I look at my niece who passed away from leukaemia, I don't know if it's related to the testing. That's what's really hurting, I think, it's this level of doubt and fear. I don't know if that can be resolved.

Do you think there's a difference in international attention in relation to the consequences of nuclear weapon testing and the use of nuclear weapons for war—even though the impact on human life and the environment are the same?
Yeah, I think so. There's just not a lot of historical knowledge about what happened to us and the sacrifice that was made. I think that's because that the US government doesn't want to acknowledge it. They just want to see it as this little accident from the fallout—from the Bravo shot—they don't see it as anything else. They don't see it as this major sacrifice our people made for the whole world, and for the US government specifically. I think they just want to pretend it never existed.

How do you feel about the actions of the US?
I don't know, I guess you could say there's a lot resentment. There's a lot of anger. At least from my perspective. I'm not happy with the way we've been treated and how they're dealing with climate change now. I feel like I should take the high road and say I'll pray for them or something, but I don't want to.

Your generation in the Marshall Islands have inherited the consequences of the nuclear fallout from the past and now you're stepping into a future of potential oblivion with sea level rise. How do you feel about being in that position?
Well, that's interesting because I was just talking to some people who were saying, "Hey, you know, nuclear issues is dead, there's no way we can ever get what we need, we need to just drop it and focus on climate change". And to me, I'm like, Why? Why do we need to choose one over the other? That's just disrespectful to all of our elders who passed away from the nuclear testing, you know, to those who sacrificed their lives and their land.


These two issues—they're so much bigger than us, nuclear issues and climate change and yet we [the Marshallese Islands] are at that crossroad. I guess our country is the one connecting those two issues. They're definitely incredibly related. They're examples of what happens when a larger nation doesn't care about what happens to people around them. And I'm trying to get them to care, it's just kind of hard to do.

What could and can your Pacific neighbours like New Zealand do?
I guess support us, you know when we reach out and take a stand on something, it's so important to have other nations to stand behind us.

You guys did also have the SPNFZ (South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone). I don't know, it was important, and I'm glad they banded together to do that, I just wish that they hadn't just done the South Pacific but the Northern Pacific too. That would've been nice.

How do you still find joy in the face of all that anger and constant protesting?
Self-preservation is so important in this day and age, especially with Trump. It's definitely something that comes with the territory of my work, that fatigue and exhaustion and also cynicism, but I think that's what's really great about having a kid—a three-year-old who finds everything wonderful, who's just amazed by ice cream and bubbles. It's so nice to witness that joy and to try and find that joy in yourself and to find that unlocked a little bit when you see her joy.

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WOMAN is a VICELAND series that tells stories of womanhood, personal hardships and glaring injustices from around the world. To celebrate International Women's Day, we're screening a marathon of WOMAN episodes. Tune into VICELAND, Sky Channel 13 from 5 PM tonight.