Every year, on August 6 and 9, a peace memorial conference is held in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thousands of people from all over the world gather there to indicate their support for peace in a world that is free of nuclear weapons. Dr Srimanjari, who teaches History at Miranda House, Delhi University, took part in one such conference, in 1998. She shares her experience, saying that the visit was a real eye-opener for her.
How does one talk about peace? By sharing memories of pain with those who did not, over generations, so that the desire for peace become stronger. In the peace conference that Srimanjari attended, there were over ten thousand participants, who came from all walks of life.
There were members of organisations working for peace or peace activists from over 30 countries, Japanese teachers, doctors, lawyers, students, and women who had brought their children along. And there were the hibakushas or atomic bomb survivors whose voices were the the most important, remembers Srimanjari.
In quiet tones they spoke about the unimaginable changes that came in their lives after the atomic bomb blast: the unforgettable sight of people dying the most violent deaths all around, loss of family, a lifetime wait for members who remained untraceable, and an unending story of agonising illnesses, like cancer, caused by radiation, and most important, the realisation that they could never lead normal lives, says Srimanjari.
A photographic exhibition at the conference venue showed the extent of human suffering at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, recalls Srimanjari. “There were photographs of people jumping into the river to save their lives after they were burned…. Mothers didn’t know where their children were after the bomb.”
The history teacher remembers her visit to a hospital in Hiroshima. Most of the
hibakushas were suffering from leukemia and respiratory diseases. Most of the men had Spermia – a disease in which the sperm count goes down. Many survivors were suffering from malnutrition and could not eat properly. But because of what they went through, the hibakushas were very active in the peace movement even though they were physically inactive.
In 1998 there were about three lakh survivors (including the first and second generation survivors), and almost as many people had died earlier, says Srimanjari. The hibakusha have one demand: total abolition of nuclear weapons, and the strong belief that no one should ever suffer the way they have suffered.
That is one reason why many hibakusha do not like the fact that the Japanese government continues to live under the defence umbrella of the United States of America, that is, Japan has allowed US warships to have a base in Japan, explains Srimanjari. (For, after Japan surrendered to the US in the Second World War, it was forbidden to have its own army. That’s the way it remains to this day.)
The atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. From 1945 to 1954, Japan was under the occupation of US forces. In those years, there was very little mention of the condition of the hibakushas, and no organisation by the survivors to demand a ban on nuclear weapons. Nuclear tests were being carried out even then.
But things changed in 1954, says Srimanjari. That year, many Japanese fishermen died in a hydrogen bomb test conducted in the Pacific Islands. The terrible facts of nuclear radiation came to light. For, till then, even the people of Japan had no real knowledge of what had happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The hibakushas had spent 10 years with hardly any help from the authorities.
The Japanese government had not given any compensation to the bomb survivors. Mrs Matsui, who was among the people present at the conference, said that she had fought the cases of hibakushas for compensation, says Srimanjari.
She remembers how one by one, many hibakushas came onto the stage and spoke about the untold losses that they have suffered due to the atomic bombing. “Those who were two years old when the bomb dropped could walk only when they were six years old and some of them were completely paralysed.”
One of them said that it had been her dream to look beautiful and healthy. Would that wish ever come true, she asked. All of them spoke of how the bomb destroyed their childhood and youth. That there should be no more hibakushas in the times to come, was their one hope.
Eveybody at the conference felt that there should be more interactions between people of different countries, says Srimanjari. They all felt that governments would follow if the people spoke out strongly for peace and against war. The hibakushas have travelled widely all over the world, including the US, to share their experiences with common people.
Hundreds of schools, too, participated in the conference and that made all the difference. It also injected a feeling of hope, recalls Srimanjari. There were students from USA, UK, China, Pakistan and the Pacific Islands. The children had made beautiful paper cranes carrying the message of peace, and composed songs of peace. In the evening they organised peace marches.
As in all such conferences, there was a peace signature campaign where everyone signed their names, expressing their desire for a nuclear-free world. Such peace meetings spread awareness, says Srimanjari. “How many people know that there are nuclear tests constantly carried out in the Pacific islands? A lot of people there have silently died as a result of radiation.”
They all left the conference with renewed determination that “when we all join hands together our voices will be effective.”