The Atoll at the Center of the World

What Lies Ahead for the Marshall Islands?

During my first few days on the island, I roamed the streets, walking as far and as fast as I could in the sun and the heat. On the ground, Majuro, capital of the Marshall Islands, looked much as it had done from the air: a long, thin sliver of atoll a few hundred metres wide in the middle of the ocean, with a single road running its length. It was early but an endless succession of cars had already reached traffic jam proportions, ploughing a slow and careful route up and back the road, avoiding potholes, pigs, speed humps and children.

I walked excitedly, wanting to explore the road, the shops and the few side alleys of the atoll. But this sense of adventure slowly turned sour. The absence of shade and the churning dust kicked up by the passing traffic made exploration by foot hard work. And my curiosity came up against the limits of geography, isolation, poverty and the largely untold disaster of Pacific urbanization. The street, and the shops along it, had little appeal and retail outlets called “EZ Price,” with the questionable motto “Buy more save more,” covered with advertisements for newly arrived thermal underwear.

As I looked more closely, the predominant features of the Majuro landscape were cars, clothes and containers. Rusting carcasses of old cars were piled up on the side of the road to make way for new ones. Secondhand clothing stores displayed their dusty wares: singlets, shorts and old jeans. The New Hope Shop, a dark and airless concrete box, was selling an array of mildewy secondhand clothes. Despite the optimism of its name, a few minutes inside revealed that even the future would be faded and used. Shipping containers, either in the dock, abandoned or somehow incorporated into people’s houses along the waterfront, slowly rusted in the sea air.

Like the cars, most of the shops had blacked-out windows to repel the sun, and this gave the town a shut-down feel. In an effort to encourage customers who might find the darkened windows off-putting, the shopkeepers had put up multiple orange fluoro signs that read, “Yes, we are open” in flashing lights. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of kilometres from the continental United States, this seemed only to reinforce a sense of commercial desolation. In Payless I picked up a product that advertised a mysterious green-colored ingredient and looked very much like cheap sunscreen. Inspecting the label, it read “Warning: using this product will expose you to chemicals known in the State of California to cause cancer.” In Majuro, even terminal illness came with a discount.

To escape sun, heat and the dust of the road, I stopped in a small, empty second-hand shop. It was owned by an Indian businessman from Jaipur and, while pretending to look at faded khaki shorts and old t-shirts, we fell into conversation about that city’s Rajput palaces and kite festivals. I asked how he found living in Majuro after growing up in Jaipur. The shopkeeper looked across the room where a picture of his long-dead parents was nailed to the wall behind a collection of discount deodorants. There was a pause before he replied “I’ve been here twelve years”– a statement of fact that came across in an exhalation of hope and the gradual extinguishing of migrant ambition. I left the shop carrying an overpriced and undersized pair of camouflage sandals bought more out of sympathy than necessity.

The Majuro atoll was only a few hundred meters wide, yet the sea was invisible as if the streets, shops and houses had turned in on themselves and away from the ocean. In other Pacific countries I had visited, the geographical confines of small islands were enlarged by the presence of the elements. Vast skies and great oceans disappeared into the horizon, leaving a sense of wonder and enormity. But here the road, the cars, the concrete and the dust were now the natural environment.

Only a couple of generations ago, before readily accessible plane travel, the oceans were the highways of the world, as they had been for millennia.

And so, I took the alleys that presented themselves in the gaps between the houses to make for the sea, looking to wash away the dirt and dilapidation of the road with an early afternoon swim.  I picked up several large stones to throw at the inevitable dogs and wound the strap of my camera around my wrist to use as a high-tech ball and chain. I walked down a side street, drawn by the sounds of the waves. But at the end of the road, instead of a Pacific island beach with swaying palms and the lapping waters of a lagoon, I faced a rubbish tip. Lining the shore were piles of plastic bottles, packaging, old car tyres and tangled metal objects, too badly rusted and wrecked to imagine what they must once have been. A small pig next to me grunted amicably and for a moment we stood together looking over the pile of debris, and out across the distant waves.

On the mud-flat in front that led to the ocean, a succession of concrete pylons stood solemn and tomb-like, etched against the sky and the sea. They resembled a version of the Easter Island moai rendered in squat slabs of concrete, an abandoned and impassive testament to the god of economic progress. Close by, a dog’s carcass, floating on the in-coming tide, thudded dully against a concrete sea-wall. I walked back past the houses, over the main road and across the street, hoping that the ocean side a few hundred metres away would be better. But this was just the same, although with a greater prevalence of rusting car parts and the ruined hulks of old fishing boats. Beyond this, moored in the distance, was the sleek outline of the Google yacht – a vast aquatic pleasure dome, bristling with antennae and helicopters for use of executives, secure in a faraway jurisdiction, out of sight and out of mind.

No wonder the houses faced the street, not the water, and that the focus of life was the one narrow road up and down the atoll and not the sea. Once, the ocean had brought life and news and connection by boat to the outside world. Only a couple of generations ago, before readily accessible plane travel, the oceans were the highways of the world, as they had been for millennia. But now they were a dump. My meandering had brought me closer to a pack of large dogs a few houses away and they had noticed my presence. I hailed a passing cab and sank into the air-conditioned comfort of the back seat, relieved to have evaded the fangs of the gathering strays. Radio 504 Zumba was on in the cabin which resounded with the professional bonhomie of its hosts, outdoing each other with stories of how much they could eat.

“You murdered that plate last night, man,” came the banter between songs. “Respect, man—that’s what I’m sayin’. Keep it real, man,” they said.

And in the freezing cabin in a traffic jam, the lyrics poured out of Radio 504 Zumba:

“She wears high heels, I wear sneakers, she’s cheer captain I’m on the bleachers,” sang Taylor Swift repeatedly until a government health announcement warning of viral pinkeye brought a momentary reprieve.

I wanted to speak with young people about their hopes for the future, and so I asked the taxi driver to drop me at the College of the Marshall Islands (CMI), a community college that prepared young Marshallese to complete undergraduate degrees in the US. How did they, I wondered, “keep it real”? Three CMI students were hanging around the students’ union when I visited and Thurston, Schuyler, Walter, and I sat down to a Hawaiian pizza with peperoni and a large bucket of iced coke.

The students had come back to the Marshalls to attend college after living in Hawaii. They wanted to re-connect with Marshallese culture, since this was where they were from. I asked if they all came from Majuro and in reply they listed all the islands from which their relatives and antecedents had come. While broadly homogenous, each island had its own culture, specificity, traditions and local inflections that required acknowledgement. The recitation reminded me of a form of ancestor worship, a listing of the generations where atolls took on a personality and stood for cultural inheritance and continuity. “We still know some of the old stories and songs and the different islands our ancestors came from are important to us,” Schuyler observed, suggesting, perhaps, that he was not totally convinced by his new tertiary educated, urban identity.

There were other, more mundane, reasons for their enrollment. The College provided a short-cut to university in Hawaii and the US mainland, as they termed it, and meant they could complete a degree in two years and not three. Continued education at the University of Hawaii, Eastern Oregon State and the Jesuit-run Chaminade University in Honolulu beckoned for the ambitious and the academically able.

Did they intend to come back?

Certainly, they intended to, replied Thurston, “but really only the rich return.” For the wealthy, the Marshall Islands, an independent state of 53,000 people, held marvelous opportunities. Ministerial appointments, influential and profitable jobs in trade and fisheries regulation (or ignoring them), ambassadorships, sinecures at the UN, and travel to salubrious conference destinations in New York and Geneva all beckoned. So too did the gravy train of development: resilience, climate change adaptation, governance reform and yet more overseas meetings and conferences could make for an interesting, high profile and profitable career.

And where does everyone else end up, I asked?

“Springdale, Arkansas,” replied Walter immediately in a manner that suggested he was staring down the barrel of this option. Springdale, he explained, was the location of a chicken processing plant. The owners had once relied on the cheap labor provided by underpaid, undocumented immigrants. However, tiring of legal problems associated with this, they hit upon a solution: employ Marshallese. For the operators of the chicken plant, they were the ideal workers. They were poor and had few other options, but crucially they had the right to live and work in the US. They would work long shifts for minimal pay and were completely legal. Nearly 20 percent of the citizens of Marshall Islands had voted with their feet. The urban intensity of Majuro was not for them; de-gutting chickens in Springdale, Arkansas was, for many, the path to the future.

As I left the College of the Marshall Islands, I picked up a copy of a student literary magazine, Ettonaak. In it, a contributor called Tuna Turner had written a poem entitled “Now” that described the aspirations and perspectives of a contemporary generation that, unlike their parents and grandparents, had grown up in an urbanized present and did not pine for an idealized life in the outer islands.

I sit and listen
F-bombs dropped and n-words thrown
We are a group …

Drake, Rihanna, J. Cole, Lil Wayne –
They speak to us
We know their struggles
We too were grown in the ghetto
The streets of Jenrok
The slums of Delap … 

We are modern, we are hip, we are now

Another option for the young and not particularly well connected was to join the military. I met with Edmund Etao, a journalist who had grown up in the Marshall Islands other main urban center, Ebeye, within the Kwajelein lagoon that was also home to the US military’s Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site. Growing up in what was frequently termed the “slum of the Pacific,” Edmund had shown promise at school. As his final term approached, army recruiters had asked to talk with him.

“It was like holding up a long menu,” Edmund told me using the actual menu of the restaurant where we met as an example. “They went through all the long list of possible jobs you could do in the military—from being a cook to doing the accounts to managing logistics and many of these sounded boring. Then, having gone through all of these, they turned the page and suggested I might be more interested in 12 Bravo.” Edmund slowly ran his index finger down the long list of items on the menu, eventually hovering over a picture of a banana fritter with multiple scoops of brightly colored ice-cream. It looked big and bold and highly appetizing. “This is how they presented 12 Bravo,” he said. “It looked so good, I signed on immediately.”

In “choosing” 12 Bravo, Edmund had chosen a frontline combat unit. He completed two years of training in Texas and was dispatched to Iraq with a bomb disposal squad and straight into the carnage of frontline combat. His training turned out to be outmoded and years behind the lethal developments in the local explosive devices he had been sent to defuse. His unit had initially been light and mobile, something Edmund preferred in the densely populated and built up areas of downtown Baghdad. However, they had been transferred to a larger, armored tank which lumbered slowly through the city providing an open invitation to attackers and suicide bombers.  Once a man had driven a car-bomb at speed into the tank, blowing up a crowded market place in the process. The appalling consequences were witnessed by the young Marshallese soldiers inside the tank. “Only five of my unit died,” says Edmund in a matter-of-fact tone. “Everyone had PTSD but I think I was lucky. I grew up in a big Marshallese family and this is something that the other soldiers didn’t always have. If they didn’t have that level of support growing up, then the PTSD was really bad.”

Among the worst things Edmund had to do in Iraq were home invasions to apprehend suspected militants or bomb-makers. This was done in the dead of night and was often based on inaccurate intelligence. It was deeply shocking to the families as highly armed and adrenalized marines broke down their doors at 3 am. “In the Marshalls, we’re family people,” Edmund told me. “We take care of each other and it’s the same in Iraq. When we broke down the doors, I recognized them—these big families, all the children running around, the relationships. To me it was wrong. But some of the other soldiers seemed to get off on it.”

“There is all of this opulence—people get around in golf buggies—and yet a few minutes away 11,000 people live on top of one another.”

During leave from the army, Edmund had returned to his home island of Ebeye in the Kwajelein lagoon. This involved a transit through the Kwajelein military base itself before taking the twenty-minute ferry ride to Ebeye. Usually authorization is needed to visit Kwajelein as a secure military establishment, but as a serving member of the armed forces, Edmund was entitled to enter. Once inside, he discovered the quasi-apartheid of a military base in the remote Pacific. “Most of them were contractors,” he recalled. “I can tell, even out of uniform who is a soldier and who isn’t—it’s clear from their posture, their level of physical fitness, their hair and their clothes and I counted seven soldiers. I went to the bar and ordered a drink but was told I wasn’t allowed to be there and needed to go to the Marshallese section. I showed them my ID and when they realised that I was serving in a combat zone they suddenly became very respectful and apologized, but it was part of a deeper culture, especially for military contractors.

“Most of them were not members of the military and they were mainly white. Everything is provided for them because they are in—or with—the military. It’s all subsidized. The schools are good and get extra resources from the US and has US teachers. There is a swimming pool, a movie theatre, ATMs, a golf course, a Burger King and even a bowling alley. You pay to use the alley but they give you the shoes for free. Later I met with the commanding officer who said I was welcome, but when he found out that I was from the neighboring island of Ebeye he said, ‘Please don’t bring any of your Marshallese friends over.’ There is all of this opulence—people get around in golf buggies—and yet a few minutes away 11,000 people live on top of one another on an island that is about a third of a kilometer.”

By this stage we were joined by Edmund’s friend, Francis. A product of the same high school as Edmund, he had joined not the army but the police. “It’s Kwajelein independence day, let’s celebrate liberation from the Japanese,” he said cheerily and ordered a round of shots. We clinked glasses, toasted independence, and then the three of us drank quickly. Seconds later, we exploded into fits of rasping coughs from the appalling rocket fuel that we had just consumed. My stomach lurched, and my throat burned.

“What the hell was that?” Edmund demanded, recovering slightly.

A “Bravo Shot,” replied the policeman, pale but triumphant, named after the biggest of the nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands on Bikini atoll.

“That will fuck you up,” grunted the barman.

After a brief pause and some heavy breathing, the grotesque concoction kick started further reminiscences from Edmund and Francis about their school days discipline, the virtues of hard work, and the educational tradition of the Jesuits. “They break you down but they build you up,” said Francis ordering another round. “Made me what I am today.”

Eventually, they exhausted their tales of high school masochism, and it was time to leave. But somewhere along the way, the drinks had dislodged fragments of Latin that their teachers had instilled in them by way of education.

Ut omnes unum sint,” slurred Edmund in parting.

Francis staggered off with a wave and a vomitous “ad maiorem Dei gloriam” as he looked for a cab on Majuro’s one and only road.

*

While Castle Bravo was the largest of the 67 nuclear tests conducted in the Marshall Islands, many others left haunting physical remains from the Cold War period. On Runit atoll, 73,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste had been dumped into a vast crater and covered with concrete sarcophagus, known as the Runit Dome, and gradually leached into the ocean through the porous coral of atoll. I wanted to talk with people from the atoll and, if possible, visit the testing site. Like other remote island groups in the Marshalls, Enewetak was represented in Majuro by a “town hall.” This was situated on the third level of Majuro’s tallest building, with a total of five stories, and next to bracing wafts from a set of male urinals.

“Yes, I remember the tests well,” said Isao Sakaio, a resident in his seventies, who had come to the town hall to claim his monthly pension. There had been a second sun that day and he and other children had played outdoors in what they thought was snow but which turned out to be nuclear fallout. His skin had peeled, there were lesions, and his hair had come out in clumps. “The fallout tasted like cement,” Isao remembered, pursing his lips.

Given his direct personal experience of the nuclear testing, I asked what he thought about the ongoing close relationship between the Marshall Islands and the United States.

“They’re so clever, the Americans,” he replied. “They can make these bombs and planes; they’re so much more advanced than we are. We don’t have anything like that and are really quite backward.” As this nuclear survivor spoke reverentially about the superiority of American technology, I wondered whether, in a terrible accident, he had swallowed a 1950s nuclear propaganda film whole during his escape from the contaminated island.

Continuing my search for information, I left the town hall and went back out onto the street. I followed a sign pointing to the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, which I found innocuously located in a building on the main shopping strip, between the post office and the bank. But despite a prominent sign outside, the office itself was hard to find once inside. After running up and down dusty stairwells, I eventually saw a chipped printed notice at the bottom of a window next to Room 209. The door was open, and the office inside looked like something from the mid-1990s. Ancient Apple Macintosh computers were piled up in the corners, and a microfilm reader sat in the centre of the room. Empty desks and swivel chairs had an expectant look that suggested their occupants had ducked out for a quick lunch in 1995, never to return.

Lined against the walls of the tribunal office were boxes and boxes of case files named for the main atolls subjected to the nuclear tests and those subsequently uninhabitable because of nuclear testing. Amid the dust and jumble of files, I didn’t know where to begin. I turned to some rusty ring-binders and fell headlong into the past. The fading facsimiles and aging reports inside, covered in dust and dead cockroaches, told a story of wilful and permanent destruction. In total, 67 nuclear tests were tested carried out in the Marshalls. Reading through a bland-looking table appended to one of the faxes in the ring binder, I found that some of the Marshall Islands’ northern atolls have been declared off-limits for human habitation for the next 24,000 years.

In the 1990s, a geo-engineering firm from New Zealand called Darroch had conducted an assessment of the islands in the Bikini chain as well as Bikini atoll itself. There was a comprehensive list of each of the coral atolls, few of which were now deemed capable of supporting “permanent habitation” and a chilling phrase kept recurring: “Atoll no longer present, vaporised.” On Bikini atoll, the most famous of the nuclear test sites, the report made some optimistic observations. Despite acknowledging the presence of radioactive substances and a high level of contamination in plant and animal life, the report claimed that “with its unique history, extensive beaches, and excellent scuba diving, and the attraction of the Bravo crater (one mile wide and 400 feet deep) could certainly be one of the Marshall Islands leading tourist attractions’.

The Proceedings of the Second Interdisciplinary Conference on Selected Effects of a General War directly addressed the likely consequences of a nuclear conflict and was conducted in the tone of a chummy, pipe-smoking Ivy League common room. Starting the conference in a jocular tone, Dr Dunham, a facilitator, reflected on his role: “I gather that my function is that of an initiator in the sense that one talks about initiators in atomic weapons; the problem is whether I can produce enough neutrons to produce a chain reaction with this, our critical assembly here [laughter].”

“A fascinating question” that the distinguished scientific gentlemen should consider, Dunham continued, was how pilots would react when they discovered “that they had received a lethal dose of radiation” while flying.

“The Marshall Islands are where the atomic age meets the climate change era.”

However, it was a description by Dr. Merril Eisenbud of the US Atomic Energy Commission of the research possibilities afforded by testing in the Marshall Islands that revealed most about the United States” intentions for the nuclear tests, beyond just how large an explosion could be made. “It will be very interesting to go back and get good environmental data: how many per square mile, what isotopes are involved and a sample of food changes in many humans through their urines, so as to get a measure of the human uptake when people live in a contaminated environment. Now, data of this type has never been available. While it is true that these people do not live, I would say, the way Westerners do, civilized people, it is nevertheless also true that these people are more like us than mice,” he said.

I looked up from the rusty ring binders and, through the battered venetian blinds, saw that is was now dusk. Leaving Room 209, I walked down to the edge of the lagoon and looked out in the darkness, swathed in the cool, salty breeze, and contemplated the distant hulks of fishing boats, sheltering from the ocean.

*

“Canoe-building and navigation in the Marshall Islands originated in Bikini,” said Alson Kelen, a traditional navigator and former mayor of Bikini Atoll, who now taught young Marshallese the old ocean-going traditions. “The trees were planted on the windward side of the atoll to ensure they grew curved for the boats’ hulls. They grew slowly and so grandparents planted for their grandchildren. The boats were light and fast—able to speed on the winds nearly a thousand kilometres between the dispersed atolls in days.”

“Marshallese navigate with their stomachs,” he continued. “We practice ‘wave navigation,’ feeling the swell of the ocean and recognizing its direction. During the day, I close my eyes to prevent myself from becoming distracted and to sense the movement of the ocean. The atolls, the trees, the canoe-building, the ancient navigation: to us everything is connected. It stopped on 1 March 1954,” the day of the Bikini nuclear test. He reflected for a moment, before adding, “The Marshall Islands are where the atomic age meets the climate change era.”

Despite the contamination, there is pressure for the Bikini community to return to the atoll. In a meeting at the American Embassy, Kelen was told they could go but not to “eat fish or coconuts or dig the soil and we were told to keep our children inside. I asked the officials if they realized we are adults. We will never go back to Bikini,” he continued. “It lives on as an idea, a culture we preserve through teaching navigation and canoe-making. This is not just about preserving tradition—it is about finding a sustainable future.”

“We can’t undo the past,” he went on. “I know that I am never going back to Bikini and we have such close connections now with America—I was educated there, many Marshallese live or have family there. But nobody knows about the Marshalls there, even though the nuclear tests are part of US history. I would be happy if this was taught in schools.” Alson picked up an enormous hard cover US history textbook that had been donated by a well-wisher to help teach English to young people in the canoe program. An eagle, with wings spread, glared imperiously from the front cover beneath the title: A Free People, it read.

Tom Bamforth
Tom Bamforth
Tom Bamforth is an aid worker and writer and has spent ten years working and traveling in the Pacific. Most recently, he is the author of The Rising Tide: among the islands and atolls of the Pacific Ocean. His website is: www.tombamforth.com





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