26 Jun 2013

Marshallese health champion subject of new book

4:53 pm on 26 June 2013

A Marshallese woman who died fighting for justice for the survivors of United States nuclear weapons tests on her country's islands is the subject of a new book, written by her husband.

Darlene Keju was born on the island of Ebeye, but grew up on Wotje during the post-war era of nuclear testing.

She was one of thousands of Marshall Islanders exposed to deadly radioactive fallout but it wasn't until she went to Hawaii for university that she learned the truth about the testing and how widespread it was.

Giff Johnson, the editor of the Marshall Islands Journal, was married to Darlene until her death 17 years ago at the age of 45.

He told Annell Husband she began speaking out in the 1970s and 1980s, at great personal risk, to give visibility to the plight of the test survivors who had no voice.

GIFF JOHNSON: Frankly, as we look at the documents that have been declassified today and we look back at 1954... In 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown was on CNN and everybody in the world who wanted to know about the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine could watch it on CNN. Well, the Marshall Islands had its version of Chernobyl in a situation that nobody knew about. And when you look at the US government statements of the 1950s after the Castle Bravo tests put a snowstorm of fall-out on to unsuspecting islanders the US just covered it up. Right from day one, they covered up the fact that people suffered skin burns, that their hair fell out, and they put out these statements about how everybody was well, things are looking good. But the key to the cover-up was explaining that the size of the test, the Castle Bravo test, was much bigger than they had anticipated, which was why they didn't evacuate people prior to the test. And, secondly, that the wind condition changed, that there was a sudden shift in winds which caused the fall-out to hit all these people. We now have documents from the US government, declassified, that prove all of that is a lie. And it took 40 years to get it out. But the sad thing in my mind, and what Darlene fought for so much in speaking out about this nuclear test issue in the Marshall Islands, is that she was trying to get fair treatment for all Marshall Islanders who were exposed to fallout. And if you look at the United States, the US Congress has done the right thing about the 'down-winders', the people who lived around the Nevada nuclear test site, in compensating them. And they've repeatedly appropriated more money, that is the US Congress has repeatedly appropriated more money in the hundreds and millions of dollars as more claims come in. Well, in the Marshall Islands, they tested a much larger amount of megatonnage, and yet they only gave the Marshall Islands a $150 million trust fund, and when that ran out, they just said, 'Sorry, we're done'. And yet the exposure is more, obviously, because they tested a hundred times the megatonnage of these hydrogen bombs in the Marshall Islands compared to the US, so the question, really, is one of fairness. Why are American citizens being treated more fairly than Marshallese citizens?

ANNELL HUSBAND: And aside from her story obviously being an extremely compelling one to tell and to be able to tell from your viewpoint of having shared quite a bit of the journey with her, as you mentioned, is that another reason for publishing the book, to get an answer to that question?

GJ: I hope that the book will get people to talk about the nuclear test situation in the Marshall Islands because although the US government says 'We've done it. We gave full and final compensation'. The fairness of the situation is clearly not there when you consider all the things that we've learned subsequent to the signing of the agreement. And you've got a superpower dealing with a little tiny Pacific Island country, they withheld information, they lied about all this stuff to do with the fall-out and the tests. And is there any wonder that the competition agreement is faulty? Of course it's faulty. But the US courts have thrown it out, the US administration has just said, 'No, there's no legal requirement to do any more' and the US congress has refused to act on a petition that the Marshall Islands filed more than a dozen years ago. So the Marshall Islands has really hit a brick wall on this. But lest people think that this whole book is about the nuclear issue. What she did in a small Pacific island where it's difficult for somebody to come in who hasn't been there, somebody young to come in and do something innovative, different, change people's way of thinking, it's just remarkable looking back to see the kind of primary health care work, the innovations that she generated. And what's even more amazing is that 17 years after she died, the organisation she created - Youth to Youth in Health - is still an operating functional organisation, which is a real testament to not only her vision, but how this organisation has resonated with the community as a valuable solution to Marshallese problems created by a Marshall Islander.