Interview of Lijon Eknilang
interviewed by Mary Silk, March 5, 2008
Note: The interviewee is noted by initials, the interviewer by [Q].
[LE] My name is Lijon Eknilang, I was born March 1, 1946 and my clan’s name is Ri-Kwajalein.
[Q] Ok, good. So when were you born? Oh, right, you already stated that. Where were you born? What island?
[LE] I was born on Rongelap atoll.
[Q] What island?
[LE] Rongelap, Rongelap [the main island].
[Q] Now who are your parents, what are their names, would you like to tell a little about them?
[LE] My mother’s name is Bweradik and my father’s name is Eknilang.
[Q] Do you have any brothers and sisters and if so, you can tell a little about them.
[LE] I have seven sisters and five brothers. Now I have one who is passed away, and that is the eldest. He died before he became a teenager; his name was Hiroshi. Hiroshi Kevin-Lee was named after my eldest brother and Ijao Eknilang, my second eldest brother and my eldest sister, Seiko Tomaioshi, now she is in Hawaii. And I have a younger sister who has passed away due to sickness of the body [cancer]. And now, the three of us have already gone through thyroid surgery. Me, Seiko, and Nershi. We have been through the thyroid surgery process.
[Q] Ok, now -- as you learned and observed -- before the Americans came here to do nuclear testing, particularly on Bikini atoll, they moved the people on Enewetak to Neik [inaudible] Island and now people in Bolto were moved from there to Lae Atoll. Were you part of this migration?
Life on Rongelap Before the Bravo Nuclear Test
[LE] Yes, there were three atolls at that time when we started to migrate from Rongalap to Lae and we were relocated to move to Wotto [Wotho] and then moved to Kwajalein within that same migration.
[LE] Yes, 1946 and then we moved again to Rongelap in that same period, 1946.
[Q] So you are saying you were three months old at that time.
[LE] Yes, I was three months old.
[Q] Ok, good. Now, let’s say before the testing began, before the Bravo shot (which we all know about). What was the life on Rongelap like? What did you usually do before 1954?
[LE] Ok, it was very very good. I still can recall when we were students. We would go to school and then all the elders on island would make lunch for the students. And we would always go and eat during lunchtime, and participate in the school activities. And we were enjoying each other, we worked together, and found ways for the students to get fed everyday. I know Rongelap atoll was the first atoll that made lunch available for students. These lunches were part of a program run by the USDA.
[Q] The Lunch program?
[LE] Yes. Well, Rongelap was the first to make that happen during that period. Let’s say before the Japanese period, there was a club for women that was established on Rongelap. It was Rongelap that started clubs for women. And there was another co-op for men. And they often worked together in outreach to the other [outer] atolls spreading the activities to those outer atolls: sailing on their boats and working together. It was wonderful how we worked together and respected each other. It was one hundred percent participation and total respect for one another: for example, respecting one another, we knew who was in charge, who led, and we knew that we were supposed to carry out what the coordinators told us to do.
[Q] What were the names of the clubs, both the men’s and the women’s?
[LE] Well at that time, I knew they were clubs but I did not know [their names] but we continued on in the activities when we returned to Rongelap. And back in the fifties, we went back and established those clubs and the club for women was called “White Rose”
[Q] White Rose?
[LE] The men’s co-op was called R2M.
[Q] What is it called?
[Q] R2M, what does it mean?
[LE] OK. Well, now I was very young at the time…
[Q] But they called it R2M, right?
[LE] Yes, R2M for men only. For activities, that club went from place to place to plant shoreline trees on every atoll. They went to Ailinginae and went from there to other islets to plant coconut trees because we took the saplings from Ejit Island. And some of them grew and some of them died probably because they got scorched [in the sun].
[Q] Sounds good. Now what grade were you in at that time? Before the bomb, the Bravo shot?
[LE] I was actually in first grade.
[Q] First grade?
[LE] One time came when we could go to Ailinginae atoll. I skipped classes so I could go to Ailinginae . Just to gather coconuts. My family and I would go to gather the fallen coconuts, cook food near Christmas time, and these kinds of things. And… because there was type of giant pumpkin that grew on Ailinginae . It was there from time to time, there did not seem to be any particular season for it.
[LE] Every day we would take a piece of a coconut tree, a piece of a plant, everything… everything that… it was like a thing that never… a thing that blessed the people on Ailinginae . They would come from Rongerik, collect some pumpkins and take them to feed their people. They would take some pumpkin and feed their people at that time. And that pumpkin stayed there up to 1954. That type of pumpkin was the biggest source of food for us on Rongelap and Rongerik.
[Q] And this pumpkin, is it still alive?
[LE] When we returned in 1957 and in the successive years, ’58, ’59 it was gone. It died.
[Q] And in 1954, where were you and what were you doing at that time, when Bravo fell over Bikini?
Witness to the Bravo Nuclear Explosion
[LE] Well, in 1954, we were collecting fallen coconuts on Ailinginae atoll. And almost all of the people on Ailinginae set out to the islets to collect fallen coconuts. They were on an islet called Karowe. But my mother’s mother and her cousin and I and my uncle, we were left alone on Anebur. Anebur is the main island for Ailinginae . It is called Anebur. We were there keeping an eye on the pile of coconut. We would fix ourselves meals of flying bird. Every day we would eat kowak
[specific type of bird]. And the neighboring islets, you would go to these neighboring islets just to find yourself turtle eggs and hunt for more birds and eat and enjoy hunting. Especially when you are talking about fish, I would go out there and play with the fish, which are caught on the dry reef flat when the tide goes out.
For me, I thought of the fish as toys because there were lots and lots of them flapping here and there on the exposed reef. You turn here, there is fish, you turn there, there is fish. And I would go and you know these… the pieces of drift wood. When they came ashore, I would go stand on one and use it as an observatory to survey the reef flat. Watching the all the fish flapping and swimming on their sides [trying to get to deeper water]. Because I was the only girl, what I usually did was go out there and play with the birds and play with the fish.
[Q] And so when the fallout at that time…
[LE] Oh, right, that time….
[Q] Recalling that time, how did it feel to you? What was it like? What was that period like for you?
[LE] My old man [father] and I were asleep at that time, but we were surprised when suddenly it was like daytime because it was very bright even through our eyelids. We woke up immediately. I woke up because, well I am not kidding you, because my dream—I did not know what a bomb was like and what it was used for—I had never heard of one before, but in my dream, I dreamt of the bomb falling from the sky and bursting into flames while I was standing in the middle of the flames. And I was crying and shouting names, but I did not see anyone. No one did I see in my dream and I cried and cried and called names [called for my family]. And when I learned about bombs, it was in my dreams because they fell from the sky and burst into flames and exploded and scared me.
So, I was crying when I woke up. Because of the bright explosion, I was very very scared. And then I started to cry again and ran out the door. Outside, I saw my two grandmas -- they were fighting because one of them assumed that the other one had set her house on fire. The one who was very angry suspected that the other one was burning down the house. She [the suspicious one] did not check for fire, but she assumed guilt and yelled at the other woman, “Why did you set a fire?”
[Q] So they were shouting at one another?
[LE] Yes. As they were fighting, confused about the explosion. I went back and forth into the house while crying. My father [uncle], the old man woke up, and came to see why I was crying. And now I can clearly recall the shape of the explosion -- it was the shape of a ball stepping down from the sky. While I was crying I saw it.
[LE] And I looked at it for a long time, crying. Moments after that, I heard the explosion -- the ball did not reach the water before it exploded. It was as if it fell down to here [signals with hand] and it exploded. As it exploded, it was very loud; it tore my eardrums. Well, you know Ailinginae Atoll is very close to Rongerik atoll, and these two are very close to Bikini -- they are neighboring islands to Bikini. And it was so close we could sail to Bikini from Ailinginae in a tipnol [medium sized sailing canoe—mostly for travel inside the lagoon].
They said that the fallout skipped Ailinginae atoll. It did not really affect it according to the reports given by the Japanese researchers and others. They said that the fallout was blown past Ailinginae . But we saw it sprinkle on us, the powder [fallout] sprinkled on us everywhere. It was even caught in our eyes, even though there was no strong wind.
After the test, and after the shockwave, it was very quiet, no wind at all. Very very quiet. It was so quiet when the grit from the explosion fell into our eyes. It was ten in the morning at that time and we were sticking close to one another, but they [the adults in the group] said, “Let’s run, the war has returned. “
They were saying ‘battle’ and I did not know what ‘battle’ was. I had no clue, but I listened to them saying, “Let’s go” and we were sitting close to one another and wondering in surprise at the ash falling without a wind. How could this be caught in our eyes when there is no wind at all and no one walking around to throw sand at us? And then, we were surprised to see people from the neighboring islets arriving on shore. They came for water because they were very thirsty.
[Q] What kind of water was that?
[LE] Drinking water.
[Q] Which island did they come from Rongerik?
[LE] No, it was from the neighboring islets of Ailinginae . They came thirsty because they had set out the night before, hunting for birds. They set out to hunt for birds and saw the explosion while they were out hunting and got very thirsty. They were very thirsty and then they came to where we were staying in search of drinking water. And I believe I heard them talking about the color of the [drinking] water changing, and they said, “The water color has changed.” And you know it was in the fifties, and I am not sure they understood the word ‘color’, but they were saying, “It is purple, it is purple, it is violet, it is violet.” This phrase, “It’s violet.” And I did not know if it was really violet. And I did not know it was violet because I did not know anything about color. But the elderly men, said, “The water is violet. It has changed.” And so we gave them water even though the color of the water had changed, they drank it because of their thirst.
And so we decided to gather everyone into a safe place and we hopped on their tipnols, sailing to their islets, assuming that the war had begun. And they took us and we went with them together. As we wandered around, some of us started to feel dizzy and felt the powder in our eyes burning as if we had stared at the sun for a long time. And we kept asking ourselves, “Why do we feel sick? We were well before.” For us, we would go and they would say, “Everyone needs to collect fallen coconuts. We will work together and see what happens next” because we were assuming the combatants would come and take us or kill us. We believed that this would happen again [like during WWII]. We were surprised to hear people say, “There is a ship in the lagoon.”
When the ship actually arrived, it was an American ship. Well, everyone hid in the brush because we were assuming that they were coming to kill us. So we went to hide. While we were hiding, they shouted at us, saying that everyone needed to go to the lagoon shore and get ready to board the ship because the ship came to pick us up. Another woman and I -- her name was Kajjin from Jenwod [islet in Ailinginae ] were still hiding in the bush. We were the very last to come out of the bush because we were scared to go. We were so scared, that other girl and I, because we had earlier heard the word “manaman” [kill]. We were hiding but they were waiting and waiting for us. We even heard voices over the bullhorn, and so one of my grandmas was looking for me because she couldn’t find me, and we [my grandma and I] were at different locations.
When we went there everyone else was already on the boat, and you know the grilled chicken? They brought them out so we could eat. They threw overboard the food that we had collected for my grandparents. They said, “You are not allowed to take anything with you except your clothes and then we boarded and even now I can remember when we were on the ship, I still can recall them shipping the [rescue] boats while we were watching. Throwing us soap, they forced us to take a shower. Then they took us up and lined us up next to the railing. They commanded. “Stop there and take off your clothes and throw them into the sea.” Then they gave us small white towels and it was the first time anyone had worn a towel. It felt a little funny wearing those small towels. I felt sick, but it was my first time seeing the elderly men’s behinds.
It was a bit funny to me because I could really see. But they took the men and placed them at the other railing, and when we neared Kwajalein, the military was prepared with big vans, a big huge bus. They came and took us, and when we arrived at the camp, the showers were ready for us. That was our very first shower. After that, they told everyone to collect their urine in a plastic jug. That was one of the strange things I went through, a jug for everyone. Yes, and what they did was come everyday and tell us to bathe in the lagoon in order for us to really scrub our bodies while in the water. They would take us to the end of Kwajalein at Koror. We would go there and bathe. We would stay in [inaudible] they would tie us together with a rope. And this was the first time that Hawaiians came to work on Kwajalein. And not just work, but to build a settlement there on Kwajalein. And those ropes that were tied around the individuals in the group, we would stay inside them and each had her own.
[Q] What was your housing like? What kind of housing did you have?
The Survivors Held on Kwajalein
[LE] Well, a house, a real house. But the thing is we would not go past the boundaries that they set for us. And the Utrikese, had just arrived. We were surprised when they [elderly people in the female group] said, “The Utrikese are here. They are here, but staying over there [Oceanside]. They are also surrounded by a fence.” We stayed together and cried when they commanded, “You and two other people will live in a room.” It didn’t matter if your parents were there, but if you came across a room that was far from your parents, you had to stay in that room. That time was quite difficult for me. That time in the room plus the trip on the boat to Kwajalein because for me, that boy [her brother] and my mom’s mother, we stayed in one room. And Hiroshi cried out loud and often because of the irritation. And he kept crying and crying.
As for me, I was also crying because I was sick—as if I had a strong flu. I was achy and feeling dizzy. At that time, my grandmother was suffering, she would crawl between us and say, “What will I do with you? Now that I am also sick. You need to strengthen yourselves.” But the boy was CRYING out loud. As new days were born, they would come and take us, but I could feel for the people as I did myself because of the irritation, which was hurting.
[Q] Where would they take you? Onto the beach or into the lagoon?
[LE] Into the lagoon. We would go and bathe in the lagoon. And when we came ashore, they would come and help us into thin, white t-shirts. You know, when you wear a white t-shirt and get into the water and then get out of the water…but at that time no one was allowed to visit us because we had just arrived there. We were fresh to the camp and they did not allow any Marshallese to come. But the translators, Billiard and Jenwod..
[Q]Billiard and ..Jenwod?
[LE] They were the translators who would stay with us women. As for the men, they took them to a different place to bathe.
[Q] So the men had a different bathing spot?
[LE] Yes, but we women were bathing in a separate area. And the guys who were staying with us were there to translate for us, voicing our concerns to the doctors. The doctors would monitor our bodies. Well, you know, when the soapsuds run down our bodies it stops at a certain place, and, you know, a the monitor would cry, “Whooo.” The place where the soap finally stops is where it is very dirty. The men would avert their eyes, but say, “You need to go and wash that area so that it will be clean.”
But the elderly women were crying because that was culturally taboo. And they would place their hands covering themselves [their private parts]. And as they came out of the water they would fold their arms across their chests. And when they walked into the water, they would put their hands behind their backs. But they would cry while standing in line [to enter the water]. As for me, well, it was funny, the things we small girls would do. We laughed in the water because we were thinking it was funny, but the old women were crying.
[Q] What kind of diagnostics did they do on you?
[LE] Nothing besides telling us to bathe.
[Q] Oh, so they didn’t give you medications or ointments for your irritation?
Rongelap Survivors Relocated to Ejit, Majuro
[LE] No, they only told us to bathe in the lagoon. They brought soap and what we simply did was bathe and bathe and bathe for all the months of our stay. And when the irritation was healing, they moved us here to Majuro: Ejit island [close by the main island]. During that period when we were on Ejit, we began to have visitors. However, when you asked these visitors to hand you something…Let’s say I had a relative who visited me and I asked, “Can you pass me that?” They were very afraid to get close to us. What they would do is they would push the item to us with a stick.
[Q] So, when you came to Ejit, who visited you? Were they people from Majuro or when they came…?
[LE] When they came, they sort of acted scared because they were told not to get too close to us. And we needed…if I were to say something like, “Pass me that rope.” You would not hand it to me, instead you would push it at me with a stick like I had leprosy, or Tb, or some other highly contagious disease. And so that was the nature of our visits. And we stayed there until some of the pregnant women had given birth.
[Q] On Ejit?
[LE] Yes. On Ejit. There was a newborn at that time who had to go through throat surgery. The child’s name was Boolkein.
[Q] Boolkein Anjain?
[LE] Yes. They cut open his throat while he was still little on Ejit island. In the 1970’s, however, they told us that we could go back to Rongelap because it was safe. And if I clearly recall how our leaders coordinated our movements, they said something like, “If anyone wishes to stay [on Ejit], because there were some who did, “They must take care of themselves. The Council will not provide for you. Instead, you must provide for yourselves.” And a majority of the group returned [to Rongelap].
[Q] In the 1970’s?
[LE] Yes, in the 1970’s.
[Q] While you were staying on Ejit, what was life like? What did you do?
[LE] A large family—well, you know, there was not enough housing, but let’s say I have a family, my uncles, my mom, my grandparents, and their children, we would stay under the same roof. There was no room, but everyone lodged under the same roof. That was part of how we stayed on Ejit.
[Q] Given that Ejit is so small, how did you feed yourselves?
[LE] Well, there was this portion, a quota of food, that they would provide to us while conducting their survey, the information of which was made available to the US Federal Government. But it was all good. We stayed there peacefully on Ejit. We didn’t go hungry.
[Q] At that time was there an educational system?
[LE] Well, we went to school. We had teachers and buildings there on Ejit. There were school buildings and there was the church and we would go to school.
[Q] Who were the teachers at that time?
[LE] Our teachers at that time were Billiard, Edison, and …uh..Clanton. Those were the teachers at that time.
[Q] Let’s get back to your stay at Kwajalein. At the time when you were on Kwajalein, did they combine Ailinginae people with Ronglapese?
[LE] Yes, they combined us together, because the reason for us to be combined was that there were not any field trips [of Trust Territory supply ships]. There were no field trips to or from Ailinginae Atoll nor Rongrik Atoll. And at the time when they moved the Rongrikese to Rongelap [from Rongerik] and decided not to return to Rongerik, they brought them to live with us, but we were curious to know why they did not [were not allowed to] return but they brought more and more people to Rongelap.
[Q] After 1960, when they moved them to…
[LE] Yes, they brought them to Rongelap and let them stay there as migratory.
[Q] So, Ailinginae people combined with the Rongrikese?
[LE] Yes. Because there were no supply ships to those atolls and that is why they put them on one of the islets of Rongelap [Mejatto]. If you would look at the schedules, ever since, you will hear Rongerik Atoll or Ailinginae Atoll, but there is no connection you can make to them being called Atolls [as political entities] because they are uninhabited, but we would still go to these atolls, collect local foods, collect fallen coconuts, and bring them back to Rongelap.
[Q] But, before that, were these atolls inhabited?
[LE] There were people there; however, they had their own boats.
[Q] Now that you reside on Ejit, do they take you for [medical] testing?
[LE] There are times the DOE [Department of Energy], more specifically the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission], would come and run tests. Like while we were on Rongelap, they came [to Ejit] to visit twice a year.
[Q] And do they come to Ejit [still]?
[LE] Yes, they would come here and we go see them. We go see them at the Lerooj Atama Memorial Hospital [in Majuro].
[Q] While you were migrants in Rongelap Atoll, clearly the Ronglapese returned to Rongelap. Did you join them in this homecoming?
[LE] Yes, yes.
Ill-advised Return to Rongelap in the 1970s
[Q] As far as you can remember, at the time of your return, (as you were gone for three years), what first came to your mind as you reached that atoll?
[LE] I was joyful. As was everyone else in the group, and as we heard them say, “Well, everything is ok,” so then we brought with us coconut seedlings, pigs, chicken and other things. While on the ship back, there was a man who worked closely with us. I do not know what his surname was, because I was very young at that time, but his first name was Toffin.
[LE] It could be Jack Toffin, did he used to work with the TT [Trust Territories]? Well, if so, well, he was John Anjain’s best friend. He was his closest friend, he befriended Rongelap’s Mayor, and he lived with the mayor too. On our way, on the ship to Rongelap Atoll, they fed us sardines because they believed that Marshallese people ate fish daily, and so they gave us sardines in oil. While they fed the pigs chicken meat, steak, etc. thinking that the Marshallese people liked to eat [only] fish. We were seasick, but we ate sardines in oil on the way to Rongelap. From these meals of sardines in oil, the elders called the Rongelap’s mayor “Mr. Sardines-in-oil.”
[Q] Oil what? Sardine?
[LE] Yes. When we see him, we say, “Mr. Sardines-in-oil has returned.” We thought of him as Mr. Sardines-in-oil and it never left our minds.
[Q] As you returned and stayed…
[LE] We returned and stayed..
[Q] How did the elders feel at that time?
[LE] We were joyous when we returned to Alininginae atoll. As for me, I returned and started collecting fallen coconuts. Also, I was all grown, and I said to myself, “I’m going to school.”
[Q] You arrived first at Alininginae or at Rongelap Atoll?
[LE] Rongelap first because there were no boats scheduled to go to Alininginae or Rongelap. Instead we went straight to Rongelap and everyone stayed there. We lived and worked like we did before. All of a sudden everyone started to eat from the food crops. People fed themselves from the arrowroot plant, drank coconuts and had cooked clams, and crabs for meals. We returned and ate steamed crab. All of a sudden, we were instructed to stop eating the crab meat. “Don’t eat it!” [we were told]
[Q] How did the food affect you?
LE] Our lips and tongues turned very red from the irritation. Our throats were sore, everyone seemed to have diarrhea when they used the toilet: their stomachs ached. As if their meals were heavily spiced with hot sauce, and it was like eating a poisonous fish. All of a sudden, we were told -- learning from three young ladies’ illnesses -- that a new type of illness had emerged, and it affected the thyroid. One of the things that I liked about the doctors was that they brought with them a film about thyroid then that explained its symptoms and causes.
[Q] Who brought the film and explained?
[LE] The AEC workers brought the film and explained it. They showed us where the thyroid is usually found before they explained the illness; they introduced themselves and told us why they were there. I still can recall this because I never missed those meetings between the Rongalapese and the AEC specialists from the time I moved to Ejit Island until now. I never missed a meeting and I can still recall that time when the AEC workers brought the film and explained it. That was the very first time I understood the thyroid and where it grows. They told us it was not a type of cancer, rather it will remain where it grew, but for many years. They also said that it was harmless. This was what they told us, it was harmless. As to cancer, well it is a danger sign.
[LE] One of the girls [the three girls] had her thyroid burst.
[LE][Spelling unclear] Tisi Langinruj. Her name used to be Tisi Tima. Having been married, her last name changed. She was the one who had her thyroid burst in her throat, and the two other girls were also found to have thyroid [problems] and they were all referred to Medical treatment on Guam.
[Q] Who were these two other girls?
[LE] Neki Rubuka formerly Neki Kevin-Lee and Hermita Antak along with Tisi Langinruj. They did not know anything; there were no nurses to advise them, no translator to speak on their behalf. No parents to accompany them. They went alone, and they were gone four years. They climbed to the upper deck [of the ship taking them to Guam] and hid there. Crying, holding close to one another. They climbed up to the upper deck and hid there to hold one another close and cry. When they were asked to do something, they did not speak because they did not know or understand any English. They finally returned, one by one -- one was sent then the other and Hermita the last.
[Q] While you were on Rongelap, who visited the group, who nursed you and who helped you?
[LE] It was the DOE members. They came and nursed us. They came to take more samples, blood samples, and they placed us in this um…magnet, this thing that checks for radiation and those things. Well those were the things they would come and do to us.
[Q] As for you, were you sick or unwell at that time?
[LE] I was in and out of the hospital. I was very sick at that time and often admitted to the hospital.
[Q] What kinds of illnesses did you suffer while you were on Rongelap?
[LE] Chronic stomach pains, I suffered a lot from stomach aches. I was found to have ulcers too, probably still do.
[Q] Were there any other places you went to while living on Rongelap?
Leaving Rongelap Again
[LE] Let’s see…I stayed on Rongelap until I left Rongelap in 1973, coming here to Majuro. Then on to Ebeye. Oh! I came here in 1969 and stayed here and in late 1970, I moved to Kwajelein again and settled there. Then in 1973, I moved to Rongelap and stayed there for six months. Then moved again to Kwajelein in 1973 and flew to California three weeks later.
[Q] Were you part of the resettlement movement to Mejjatto in 1985?
[LE] I was very sick at that time. I was so ill that I did not move with them.
[Q] Where were you at that time?
[LE] I was on Ebeye, suffering from my sickness because, in 1983, I had a stroke and in the following year, 1984, no, 1985, I had cramps so bad that people die of it -- anyone who is found to be pregnant [labor pains]. And at that time, when I suffered from those pains, the seven Marshallese herbalists told me that I had twins. The embryos were moving in my abdomen. When you would touch my stomach, they would really move. When you would touch my abdomen, you could tell if you were touching the head, or the feet, or the other head. And all of a sudden, you would be surprised because the fetuses had moved to the side. My side, the sides of my abdomen would expand, and even my back. I don’t know, that was unique to me. And you could simply push downward under my chest cavity because it had become hollow. I did not know what kind of a sickness this was because I thought I would die. And yet, here I am still alive.
[Q] Were there any medications you took?
[LE] None. Oh, I was in and out of the hospital and they would treat me.
[Q] So you were not part of the resettlement group that returned to…
[LE] No, I was not.
[Q] Moved to Mejjatto?
[LE] No, I was not either
[Q] Were you able to go visit the group in Mejjatto?
[LE] Yes, I visited. I did not stop visiting them and working with them.
[Q] When would you go visit them?
[LE] After I gave birth, they had already settled on Mejjatto. They would come visit me often because they traveled everywhere. Before 1985, everyone from Rongelap stayed with me. They would come visit me at my house. They would come and we would enjoy spending time together. I prepared coconut drinks, I rinsed starch, I would go fishing, and I would do almost everything. I would do all types of work and I didn’t starve. My job was to care for my visitors and I did not want the Rongelapese visitors to go hungry, because in 1961, Mr. Toffin discontinued the food allotment for the Rongelapese.
Food stopped coming in 1961, at that time, we encountered famine. We ate…. That was the time we started to feel that we were not well because there wasn’t any food. The provisions stopped, but we would eat off of the local foods and then realized that the local foods were the cause of our health issues.
[Q] What did they say? Why did they discontinue the food allotment?
[LE] They discontinued it, John Anjain signed along with Toffin to stop the provision probably due to the resettlement and therefore we ate from the local produce.
[Q] So in the times you would go visit your relatives in Mejjatto, what did you think?
[LE] Did you notice any good things happening or bad things happening? Challenges?
[Q] In that year 1984 before the resettlement, I attended the meeting where the group was forming their opinion. I was very inquisitive and asked the people of Mejjatto, “What if one day you face famine and other challenges? Will you turn to face us and point fingers at us?” And they responded, “It does not matter if it is on different soil, we are moving because we are afraid to live here.” And this was their response. To date, they would still say the same thing. When they arrived there to Mejjatto, they did not find anything. There were no palm trees, no pandanus trees, nothing. And they started to replant the entire island. Today , there is almost everything on it. Now they can eat off of the local produce that they planted; there is almost everything there now. They settled on it and replanted everything. I was worried for them, but I know I did my part to care for them. Those on Mejjatto know that I did my best to nurse them.
[LE] Was there a health assistant to nurse them. There were times the people on Mejjatto were visited by doctors. There were times when health specialists went there and nursed them, but this did not happen often. The health specialists brought the patients to Kwajelein for physical examinations every year. They would take us to Kwajelein once a year. We would go there from Mejjatto to take our physical examinations.
[Q] Now, you reside here on Majuro and you have been here for a while right? Recalling your life on Mejjatto and comparing it to your time there on Majuro and on Rongelap, what do you think about it?
[LE] Living here on Majuro and there on Ebeye and on Mejjatto too, it is not like the life I used to live when I was on my home atoll. The reason is that I am limited here. For me to live freely, it is not like the freedom I lived on my home atoll and these are some of the things that are stuck in my mind. Especially as my children grew up. There are certain things they will not know how to do because their tools have disappeared.
My family and I could not live freely because of this. Say I were to pick some coconut fronds or pandanus leaves, [now] I need to ask permission first. And I would not really go out to gather bits of gravel [crushed coral] or go fishing or collect sand [for landscaping]. If we really want to know who we buy these things from, or landscape our houses…. Here, where we are staying is not…It is like you need to understand, that wherever a Rongalapese goes, even though he or she is lazy, you will notice that anywhere they stay, is clean and beautified. The first thing we often do, is lay gravel paths between the houses…
Rongelap was a very beautiful place. We often collected crushed coral and beautified our homes. On Mejjatto today, if you go there, you will see how different it is today from before. It is the best place (among many others). It is very spacious and beautiful. The people on it take good care of their own communities unlike Mejjatto where I am staying now. I really want it to be clean, but when I try to beautify, when I try to collect crushed coral, there isn’t any. When I try to buy it, the construction equipment is broken. Not only this, but no one is allowed to collect crushed coral. [There is an environmental law which prohibits the collection of crushed coral].
So now, I am waiting for a place to go…It isn’t really good, and one of these days people will…I need to follow what they say—the orders given from the steward here [of this land]. When they tell me to pay my taxes or do this or that, I do them according to their words. It isn’t like the life I lived when I was on my home atoll because no one there tells me, “Do this, do that” [people’s social rank changes depending on which atoll they are located.] None no one. I would do everything of my own free will, like people here do everything of their own free will. Where I am is like living in someone else’s room. It is like a place that people prepared for their own family. But, you know, because we are all closely related we say, “You are related to me, so I am willing to open my home to you.” And if they need to charge me a fee, no matter the tax, as I see it, because the life here is not one I depend on.
[Q] As you reside here, do you lease places or not?
[LE] There are people who lease the places we stay, but for us, payments are about due.
[Q] [Are the payments due] to you?
[Q] When was the last time you went to Rongelap? Oh in… [What] about Ailinginae
[LE] Ailinginae. Ailinginae in 1985 before…let’s say at that time, I went, I paid my last visit to Ailinginae, because I thought I would have…At that time, it was confirmed that we were to move from Rongelap and so I paid my last visit to Ailinginae. As for Rongelap, in 1980…the time we blessed the housing. That was the last time I was in Rongelap.
[Q] The housing there [on Rongelap]?
[LE] Oh, no…the time after that time [the blessing] then I went with – you see the men, observers who came to [Rongelap] well, we chartered two boats that belonged to Rongerik local government to go to Rongelap, just to give the observers the opportunity to survey the island.
[Q] Please excuse me, can we proceed to talking about the programs like the 177 and all?
[LE] Yes. Yes?
[Q] The programs like the 177 and others from which you received help.
[LE] There, the 177 program is a bit better because it helps us send out children out for medical treatment. The can also go to the pharmacy to pick up medicines. That Program (177) we relied on it little because our children could just go to the doctor. But as it diminishes, we have to find the appropriate authorities to sign the paper work. This is different from the past. It was not too hard in the past, but now you need to carefully fill out the forms, then locate the proper authorities to authorize the documents. What people say is that when they [the authorities] are busy doing something else, they will let the documents sit on their desks for quite a while.
[LE] They say our children need a valid identification. They have stopped receiving children without a valid ID, even though they know us. But what they tell us is that we must make sure to have valid ID for our children.
[Q] Other than the health program, are you living in a project house?
[LE] Yes. This house too. Our houses come under the housing program; however, we pay for the utilities, they build us these houses, and we take care of the rest: city water, city power, sanitation…
[Q] What about the payment program [reparations]? The resettlement program and the claims under the resettlement program?
[Q] What about your children, are they enrolled in the scholarship program? I heard that Rongelap also has a scholarship program.
[LE] Yes. They are also enrolled in the scholarship program; however, it is not enough to cover the expense. It is not enough for them to buy textbooks, clothing or meals. It is maybe good for students here in the Marshall Islands, but for students in the States, well, it isn’t enough. But, it helps in some ways.
[Q] What about the food program? Do you receive benefits from this program?
[LE] For that program, yes. I receive benefits from that program too because they said that those who receive these quarterly distributions must be the ones who lived during the Testing period. As for those who survived the Nuclear testing living in Ebeye and here on Majuro, they don’t receive the quarterly distributions.
[Q] What do you think about these programs?
[LE] Well, they are not enough. It is not good to me. There are lots of students going to school on islands but they can’t be enrolled in the quarterly distribution program, and they don’t have any access to a lunch program. I am only enrolled in the IQ because I lived during the testing period, but as for my children, they are not -- that is why it seems unfair to me.
As for the DOE program, it is only for the elders, only for those who were taken to be examined at the time of the testing. Well, those are the only ones who are able to benefit from that program. And those are the ones who will keep the program alive until all those who benefit die. I believe there are still forty something of us still alive. When we all are gone, the program will also be gone. According to the DOE officials, when we are gone, the program will be gone.
[Q] Did you ask them why your children and grandchildren are not eligible for the DOE program (in particular)?
[LE] In the past they used to be eligible, they were eligible until 1975, there was a committee in 1975 that worked with the people of Rongelap; however, the committee members were not Rongelapese, but they were there. It was a committee formed here in the Marshall Islands; they were the ones who changed the DOE program. They changed this and that, almost everything. Therefore our children became ineligible. Ophthalmology service, gone. Along with dentistry. All gone.
They discontinued these programs, but in my opinion, I am not really concerned in enrolling my children or grandchildren in these because the DOE programs were designed only for research. It seemed to me that research was the most important goal of the program, and I agree with those who do not want their children enrolled in the DOE program because I do not want to see them subject to examination. I would only like to see them enrolled in the 177 program, which is the most important reason for my wanting the 177 program back. It helps in sending our children for medical treatment. As for the DOE program, it is only fit for the elders.
[Q] Have you ever been outside the Marshall Islands, say, Hawaii, Guam or the Mainland US to seek medical treatments?
[LE] Well, in 1978, I went to Japan for another physical examination. The same experimental exam we underwent in the DOE program, and I asked the doctors there in Japan, that if they found any health issues, would they be able to treat me? And they answered, “No.” They say they cannot because they did not have permission unless I would negotiate for authorization from the DOE and the RMI government in order for them to treat me. Then they would treat me but, without the documentation, they could not treat me even if they found something.
[Q] Besides Japan, did you fly to the US for Medical treatment?
[LE] I flew to Brookhaven, New York. I went there to carry out my physical examination. That time was the very first time they used ultrasound. That was the time they examined for signs of breast cancer. And that was the time when they first used the machine, and I was the one to be scanned: I along with two other women from Utrik. We were taken there and placed in this machine, and after our examination, they found that the machine worked and they brought it to the Marshall Islands, and that was the very first time that they started using this machine in the US in 1981.
[Q] Did they find any health issues?
[LE] It was quite difficult for them to tell me, they did not tell me. Even when I had the thyroid [condition], they didn’t tell me. They gave us what they gave us. I had been to Hawaii twice. I arrived and the next day I had swelling in one of my breasts -- it was huge. I did not expect it, but it was just there. And because of that, I cancelled my trip to Tahiti. The DOE wanted to treat me. Years later, I returned to Hawaii to resolve the swelling. And they took care of it, and I was also instructed to go back to Hawaii again, but I have not. Also, I went to Cleveland, Ohio.
[Q] And do you find yourself unwell?
[LE] Yes, yes I have lots of illnesses that cause me to feel unwell. My vision became blurred, I could not read or see far [probably cataracts]. And there were also some issues in my body that you won’t understand. Sometimes they would refer Rongelapese on an emergency basis into our National Hospital, and when they are admitted and instructed to drink medicine like Tylenol, and they feel better, but only in emergency cases. Sometimes you would drink plain water and you would feel better; you wouldn’t know why your body became numb like you were dead. But all of a sudden you would open your eyes and be surprised to see people around you.
[Q] But what do you think about these sicknesses you are experiencing?
[LE] I know nothing, but I only know that these illnesses become more grave. They don’t lessen with time, they increase, but overall, we are admitted for related illnesses. It is like we are wearing school uniforms [laughing] -- we all look alike, no one has a different illness. They match one another.
[Q] What kind of sickness?
[LE] Suddenly, you realize that your vision becomes blurred when you walk, you can’t walk long, sometimes we have headaches, and they have explained that when we have migraine headaches, when we start to feel one, we are nearing memory loss. And if you don’t take your medicines, the symptoms indicate that you will lose your memory. If you start to feel the ache in the back of your head and in your shoulders because you haven’t taken your medicine, (because sometimes I skip my medicine because I am tired of them) When I take them, I start to feel dizzy and I vomit and so I skip taking them.
[Q] Do you take medicines?
[LE] Yes. I take medicines called Centroid…I take these medicines daily, however when I skip them, I start to feel the nerves in my body thinning. I couldn’t even do my laundry or scrub the clothes because I feel like I need to keep my arms curled up at all times.
[Q] When did you start taking that medicine?
[LE] They gave them to us Rongelapese in the year 1972. That is when I started taking it. 1972. Before then, we never took any medicines. In 1972, we started taking Centroid it is for thyroid. And sometimes my hair falls out because of the medicines. The DOE officials came and changed the medicines, they told us that our hair falls out because of the high strength of the medicines, so they changed them and gave us a weaker prescription of the same medicine. Not only that, but when I take the medicine, I hardly breathe. [Phone rings] What is that? Oh gosh, what is this? [reaches for phone] [to interviewer] “Here, answer it.” [laughing] Sorry. [Laughs more] [The phone was answered…..] [From 1:10:39 to 1:11:13 someone took a phone call]…… What now? Where were we?
[Q] In summary, how would you describe the testing period that affected the people from Rongelap and Ailiningae atolls?
[LE] Because every single one of the people has thyroid problems … The reason why I say this is that we never had these kinds of health issues in Rongelap before the testing period. If you visit the graveyard there on Rongeglap, you will find very few tombs. This is because the group in that graveyard lived longer than we have -- that is why that graveyard has so few graves. But if you go to Mejjetto today, one graveyard just started that is now already overfilled. This is one of the reasons I have been thinking about these things.
The first thing that decomposes is the bone, and this is where the body is affected the most. Other people have pain in their legs and their arms but they feel the most pain in their skeleton. All of these things occurred to the people in the graveyard in Mejjetto, and you will generally notice a Rongelapese having difficulty with bone related issues. These kinds of sicknesses never occurred before to us because our forefathers were very healthy. They lived a healthy lifestyle. I saw some of them when I was very little, but I did not see anyone with the symptoms that we have today. And it was really surprising, because people only died every twenty or so years, unlike today. Today every year, someone dies. The thing is that the graveyard on Mejjetto expands rapidly unlike the graveyard on Rongelap. There are very few graves there and that is …that’s…
[Q] What if you were told to get ready to return to your home atoll Rongelap, would you go back there?
[LE] Well, from my own perspective, although it is said that Rongelap is still contaminated, I believe it would be better for me to go back. I wouldn’t mind dying from the contamination there because I am already affected. It is much much better going back then staying here. We know the fallout affected many atolls, the question is what area of the Marshall Islands is safe for the Rongelapese? It is like my life is no longer rewarding. But all of the people who stayed in the places that were affected by the fallout, are now in the places where they lived before. They said that Japan was cleaned up, as well as other places: they cleaned it up, but they still have patients admitted to hospitals. However, if I do go back, what I need the most is a little clinic so that I could stay there like the Japanese patients.
[Q] Let’s say you have time and your listeners are listening and very interested in your words of advice, or let’s say that there is now a time that you can express your opinions [freely] to Americans, or Rongelapese, or other students, or others, what would you share with each group?
[LE] If I were to share, I would express my desperation to resettle in my own atoll, Rongelap Atoll because that is where I left my freedom because there I could do almost anything. However, as I return, I will need a college or a school, a hospital for the people, in order for them to get their education and necessary medical treatments. They have graves reserved for them already, and there is no question that they will have to wait and or ask permission. And that is the freedom I would like to see the most. Know your place and return to your place.
For me, if there were a crematorium I would have commanded my relatives to cremate my body. Cremate my body—why lay my body out for a long while? If there were better ways, say another Rongelapese just passed away, they could have taken their body and just buried it. Wouldn’t it be better? But it is really hard. Think about the people on Mejjetto, if they returned to Rongelap, since the population has grown enormously. They would still need to go back to Mejjetto because the gravesites on Ebeye are overfilled. Okay, say the people on Mejjetto want to return to Mejjetto, they would go there and then ask themselves later. I want to return to Rongelap and what would they do? They need to make up their minds whether they want to return to Rongelap or stay on Mejjetto. And if their places on Rongelap are still contaminated, what will they do?
[Q] Well, it looks like I have run out of questions, but if you have any comments, further words, advice, or any other information you want to share, please share it.
Advice for Young People
[LE] OK. If it were …if it were my children, they really need to support us [elders][in our desire to return] because if it were them (instead of us) how would they make their decision? What would they think? Would they want to remain in the hardships that they are undergoing, or would they want to return to live and die in the contaminated place where they belong?
[Q] As for the students, what would you advise them?
[LE] Because the life nowadays is so different, there is always a tomorrow. This is a different generation. I am from a different generation. In the early days, life was excellent. Sometime later, it was sad, at the same time it was very challenging, but life nowadays is better. These days are not as good as the very early days, but it is generally better than it was. However, I think it is time for our youths to start thinking about the life now and the life in the future because oftentimes you will hear the popular topics like global warming or what do they call it now?
It is like you see in North America now -- the glaciers have melted. Because…Oh gosh! What do we call those things again? They also say that the sun is nearing earth because the ozone layer has been ripped open. There is a thing up there in the air; they call it the ozone layer. How do you call that in English? Well, they say it is that thing up above us, and it is the thing that protects us from the heat of the sun burning us. Even though our islands are very tiny and small, the ozone layer protects our islands. Let’s say the power plants and other causes of global warming, and you guys know the causes of the heat damaged ozone layer, you will need to learn about the things that you will bring to use in the Marshall Islands because they might contribute to the damage of the ozone layer. And you see when this thing is damaged, the sun’s heat will burn this world up in flames. Our wells will evaporate dry.
Nothing will compare to the unity of our small island country. This is why the plate tectonics… please correct me -- is this the word English speakers use? [no reply] but we call it the pounding stone. That is the thing that unites us. And from there you won’t need to bring any nuclear related technology because they will damage the ozone layer. All the crops will burst into fire if the nuclear technology is damaged, and thus, will leave us no food. All the crops will die, no fish, no food…there will be no food at all. No turban shell, and all that seafood, they will die.
At that time, when you try to weave yourself a sail [from pandanus fiber] but there will be no plants. When you decide to build a canoe [from breadfruit trunks], there will be no plants. These are the things that you really need to think about now. We are children of God, and we believe in the idea that the reason why we are safe today is that He has cared for us. But God is really happy to help those who can help themselves. All of these were created by His might, and anything we do we is likely to destroy His Kingdom, meaning that His plans will be subverted and you need to be a leader who values safeguarding them. Protect your world and protect the worlds around you. Thank you.
[Q] Thank you very much for taking the time to share your story with us.