This week poets, tribal elders, military veterans and members of the U.S. Congress will join the president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands David Kabua for Washington-Marshall Islands Nuclear Remembrance Week. The six-day virtual event is an extension of Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day, observed every March 1, the day the United States conducted its largest nuclear weapon test (a thousand times more destructive than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima).
Among the organizers is the RMI’s National Nuclear Commission, a three-person body established in 2017 to seek justice and address unresolved nuclear issues. Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. detonated 67 nuclear weapons at Bikini and Enewetak atolls.
In its pursuit of nuclear justice, and to develop new leaders among Marshallese youth, the commission has employed six college students or recent graduates from Marshallese communities around the country.
The research assistants and education/communications specialists work with public schools in the Marshall Islands and college students in RMI and the U.S. to improve understanding of the nuclear legacy and its ongoing impacts.
NNC chair Rhea Moss-Christian said in an email, “It was clear to all of us early on that we needed to generate engagement at all age levels but most importantly, to educate young Marshallese who would be dealing with nuclear issues in the future.”
The RMI-U.S. relationship is close, but it is complex. Central to the relationship is a Compact of Free Association that allows for migration, health care, and education access for Marshallese citizens.
This is where Marshallese college students come in. Through their research, outreach, and advocacy, they are establishing new relationships in the RMI, the U.S. and elsewhere.
During the 2020 Nuclear Remembrance Day ceremony in Springdale, Arkansas (home to America’s largest Marshallese community), NNC researchers connected with other communities affected by nuclear weapons.
These young Marshallese learned that far from being alone, others share similar experiences. Working with the Coalition of Nuclear Justice Activists, NNC researchers have formed relationships with atomic cleanup veterans who were recruited for cleanup efforts at Enewetak in the 1970s.
“Now that I’m learning from others, not just the Marshallese community — they also experienced similar things — that’s where the truth is,” says research assistant Jasmine Alik, a graduate student in public health at the University of Washington.
Leimamo Wase, also a public health student who grew up on Kwajalein Atoll where the U.S. operates a ballistic missile and space operations test site, says she personally recognizes connections between the nuclear legacy and continued weapons testing. “As a Marshallese person, and knowing the past, I do see a connection of the nuclear legacy with the missile testing now.”
NNC research assistant and UW medical anthropology student Melaika Andrike says the past can’t be ignored, adding this isn’t just Marshallese history, it’s American history.
Franscine Anmontha, who works with NNC as a communications strategist, was born and raised in Utah, but considers Majuro home and visits regularly. Like others interviewed for this article, she learned almost nothing about the nuclear tests during her K-12 education.
For young Marshallese, their knowledge of the nuclear era comes from hearing the stories of their bubu (grandmother) and jimma (grandfather) and in seeing how family members suffered — and still suffer — multiple cancers, endless medication, and the need to travel overseas for treatment.
The pursuit of a nuclear justice strategy raises complicated questions that each NNC research assistant must consider. Jaclyn Lelet, a research assistant studying medical anthropology and global health at the University of Washington, says one measure of justice is to acknowledge the truth in a complete and transparent manner, and it requires more than just one sentence in a textbook.
Nuclear justice, the research assistants say, may also come in the form of long overdue cancer care (unavailable) in the Marshall Islands. This would spare often elderly patients the need for expensive, complicated overseas travel.
Conducting nuclear research can be painful on a personal level, says University of Washington anthropology professor Holly Barker, one of the three NNC commissioners. The issues are not simply academic abstractions, they are grandparents, aunts, uncles, family, and friends.
This pursuit of nuclear justice, however, is about more than trying to right past wrongs. It’s also about embracing culture and language, and educating themselves, their peers, and strangers. This work requires patience, resilience, and the belief that “justice” is more than just a word in a book.
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