That’s the Japanese word for survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The word translates as “explosion-affected people.”
Rarely have I listened to such a compelling personal story. It’s the story of Setsuko Thurlow, a hibakusha, who, at just 13-years-old became a victim of war. Today, she is a Peace Ambassador of the United Nations University of Peace in Costa Rica, a Peace Ambassador of the city of Hiroshima, a nominee for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, and an honoree at this year’s Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Annual Evening of Peace which I attended.
I’ve read similar stories by survivors of Pearl Harbor. But this is not about justifying one tragedy for another. It’s about the need for the world to come together and eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth today.
While it has been 70 years since that horrific day in 1945, Thurlow speaks as if it happened yesterday.
“That fateful day, August 6, 1945, as a 13-year-old school girl and a member of the Student Mobilization Program, I was at Army headquarters, 1.8 kilometers from ground zero… suddenly I saw in the window a blinding bluish-white flash and I remember having the sensation of floating in the air.
“As I regained consciousness in the silence and darkness, I found myself pinned by the collapsed building. I could not move. I knew I faced death. I began to hear my classmates’ faint cries, ‘Mother, help me,’ ‘God, help me.’ Then, suddenly I felt hands touching my left shoulder, and heard a man saying, ‘Don’t give up! Keep moving! Keep pushing! I am trying to free you. See the light coming through that opening? Crawl towards it. Get out as quickly as possible.’ As I crawled out, the ruins were on fire. Most of my classmates in that same room were burned alive.
“Outside, I looked around. Although it was morning, it was as dark as twilight because of the dust and smoke rising in the air. A soldier ordered me and two other surviving girls to escape to the nearby hills.
“I saw streams of ghostly figures, slowly shuffling from the center of the city towards the nearby hills. They did not look like human beings; their hair stood straight up and they were naked and tattered, bleeding, burned, blackened and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing, flesh and skin hanging from their bones, some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands, and some with their stomachs burst open, with intestines hanging out.
“We students joined the ghostly procession, carefully stepping over the dead and injured. There was a deathly silence broken only by the moans of the injured and their pleas for water. The foul stench of burned skin filled the air.
“We managed to escape to the foot of the hill where there was an army training ground, about the size of two football fields. It was covered with the dead and injured, who were desperately begging, often in faint whispers, ‘Water, water, please give me water.’ But we had no containers to carry water. We went to a nearby stream to wash off the blood and dirt from our bodies. Then we tore off our blouses, soaked them with water and hurried back to hold them to the mouths of the injured, who desperately sucked in the moisture. We did not see any doctors or nurses all day. When darkness fell, we sat on the hillside and all night watched the entire city burn, numbed by the massive, grotesque scale of death and suffering we witnessed.
“My father left town early that morning. When he saw the mushroom cloud rising above the city he hurried back to the devastated city. My mother was rescued from under our collapsed home, and was able to escape to her brother’s house outside the city. My sister and her four-year-old son were burned beyond recognition while crossing a bridge going to the doctor’s office in the center of the city. Several days later they both died in agony. An aunt and two cousins were found as skeletons. My sister-in-law is still missing.
“We rejoiced in the survival of my uncle and aunt in the outskirts of the city, but several days later they began to have purple spots all over their bodies, which was a sign of radiation poisoning. According to my parents, who cared for them until their deaths, their internal organs seemed to be rotting and coming out as a thick, black liquid. Radiation, the unique characteristic of the atomic bombing, affected people in mysterious and random ways, with some dying instantly, and others weeks, months or years later by the delayed effects, and radiation is still killing survivors today, 70 years later. …
“Unfortunately, nuclear weapons are more dangerous today than at any time during the brief history of the nuclear age, due to a wide variety of risks including: proliferation (with some 16,000 nuclear bombs possessed by 9 nations) and modernization (with $1 trillion planned by the U.S. alone over the next three decades); human error; computer failure; complex systems failure; radioactive contamination already in the environment and its toll on public and environmental health; as well as the global famine and climate chaos that would ensue should a limited use of nuclear weapons occur by accident or design. There is also the danger of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons. …
“At this point I would like to take a few minutes to show you a yellow banner which my alma mater in Hiroshima made for me. This is a list of 351 names of my schoolmates and teachers who perished in the Hell on Earth that day. When I use large numbers to describe the massive scale of death and casualties of Hiroshima, peoples’ minds are numbed and they have difficulty relating to such abstract numbers meaningfully. As I show this to you I want you to feel and imagine that each name here represents an individual human being, a real person who was loved by someone and who was engaged in his or her life until 8:15 that morning. …
“I’m showing this especially to the many young people here tonight. Unlike me, who had a gift of an extra 70 years, your lives are just blossoming to embrace life’s gifts such as careers, marriages, families, and so forth. I want you to live your God-given lives as fully and happily as you can. But, to do so, we all must ensure that our common home, planet Earth, is here intact for you to enjoy. It is a shared responsibility to protect it and nurture it, not only for ourselves, but for future generations.”