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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center

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RMI Nuclear Test Survivor, International Advocate Dies
Lijon Eknilang raised awareness of suffering from testing

By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Aug. 27, 2012) – A survivor of nuclear fallout from a Pacific hydrogen bomb test, who traveled the globe to speak out about health problems she and fellow fallout victims suffered, has died in Majuro at age 66.

Lijon Eknilang, one of 82 Rongelap Islanders who were engulfed by a snowstorm of radioactive fallout from the March 1, 1954 Bravo hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll, was an icon among the fallout-exposed community in the Marshall Islands for her international advocacy on behalf of nuclear test victims.

Bravo was the largest of the 67 nuclear weapons tests that the United States conducted in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958. In an ironic twist of fate, Eknilang’s birthday was March 1.

She died at Majuro Hospital earlier in the week following a brief illness.

A former councilwoman for Rongelap, Eknilang was eight years old when the Bravo hydrogen bomb was tested at Bikini, spewing radioactive ash onto unsuspecting islanders at Rongelap and other islands more than 100 miles downwind. Most of the Rongelap islanders suffered from severe radiation burns on their necks, backs, arms and feet, and many had their hair fall out as a result of the exposure.

Later in life, after her and other islanders’ health problems multiplied — including a rash of thyroid tumors and cancers — Eknilang began advocating for Rongelap nuclear test survivors, becoming well-known internationally. She spoke at conferences and went on speaking tours in Europe, the United States and Japan to raise people’s awareness about health problems Rongelap Islanders experienced as a result of their fallout exposure. She put a spotlight on the birth problems — ranging from miscarriages to "jelly fish-like" babies — Rongelap women have reported experiencing since the 1954 test.

Eknilang was one of the motivators of the Rongelap people’s self-evacuation from Rongelap to Mejatto Island in Kwajalein Atoll in 1985 onboard the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior that a few weeks later was bombed and sunk in New Zealand by French government secret agents.

"People were getting sick and frequently being sent off for medical treatment," she said in a 2005 interview about the underlying motivation for Rongelap people leaving their island. In an article on the 20th anniversary of the resettlement, she said the entire community was in agreement that Rongelap Atoll was contaminated and they had to evacuate before more people got sick.

"We were worried for the safety of our children," she said. "Our main goal to move was to get the U.S. to clean Rongelap."

Majuro resident Bill Graham, who for 21 years worked as the public advocate for a Nuclear Claims Tribunal in Majuro that provided compensation to nuclear test victims, recalled a 1999 trip to Rongelap, Ailinginae, and Rongerik atolls that included Eknilang, a dozen or so members of those communities and the independent scientific and land valuation experts who were working on the Rongelap nuclear test property damage claim.

"Lijon was obviously excited at returning to her ancestral homelands and recalled various special items which each of several different islands had traditionally provided," said Graham. "Many of those ‘treasures,’ as she called them, were still there to be found when the group went ashore at those islands and she took great delight at again being in what she referred to as her ‘playground.’

"But there was a very serious side to Lijon as well," Graham said, "especially when she described the many hardships and suffering that the people experienced as a consequence of the nuclear testing program. She was a powerful spokesperson for the Rongelap people and her courage in being willing to share personal health issues helped other women to come out publicly as well."

Subsequent to the Rongelap people’s departure from their home atoll in 1985, the U.S. government funded independent scientific studies that confirmed the need for a nuclear cleanup, and the U.S. Congress later appropriated a $45 million Rongelap Resettlement Trust Fund. The question of a return to Rongelap remains controversial, as US funds have provided for cleaning up only one of the more than 60 islands in Rongelap’s necklace of coral islands.

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