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Lest we Forget: Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Gilbert Wong NZ Herald 1 Aug 1998

The centre of the Hiroshima Peace Park is the A bomb dome. Elsewhere the park is studded with monuments that lack the resonance of the dome: the pond of peace, the flame of peace, the peace bell, the fountain of prayer and others including the Children's Peace Monument. The last is a hive of activity. Known as the Tower of 1000 Cranes, the three-legged, vaguely Buck Rogers-like structure dates from 1958 and the story of Sadako Sasaki, a Nobori-cho junior high student who died in the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital of leukemia caused by atomic radiation. As she lay dying, Sadako held to the popular belief that folding 1000 paper cranes would bring good luck. At her death she had failed to fold her 1000 cranes, and the emblematic image of youthful tragedy stuck in the minds of thousands of children. Party after party of school children troops up to the monument carrying boxes of multicoloured origami cranes. They deposit these among the giant pile of other cranes. In the evening after the children have gone, park workers sweep the millions of origami cranes into tiny trucks. In Japan, even collecting the rubbish can be decorous. To the commands of their teachers, barked through handheld loud-speakers, the schoolchildren form into ranks and bow to the memory of a child who died before her time. Sometimes they break into song, their piping voices, accompanied by the tinny speakers of a ghetto-blaster, echoing through the trees: "Hiroshirna, Hiroshima, we should always cherish the memory of what happened here. "Walking around Hiroshirna, you wig never forget what should not be forgotten. "Let's not forget, let's work for peace." Their song ended, the children politely applaud and climb back on their buses, their ritual of remembrance done. In many respects the story of Mitsui Kinue is far sadder but it has not been capped by a tragic death, a monument or the symbolic beauty of 1000 origami cranes. Yet in her own way Kinue has developed another ritual, one that she lives every day. It is the story of the day she saw the sun explode. How many times has she told this tale? Enough to tell it without flinching, without letting the memories the sto- ries must bring interfere with the way she tens it, which is direct with little emotion, her tone matter-of-fact. She talkes us back more than 50 years. Kinue wasa country girl from a small village called Yaku. She had come to Hiroshima to work in a clothing factory. On the morning of August 6, 1945, the 26-year-old was on her way to work. The midsummer sldes were clear, not a cloud, and the temperature was already high as she made her way to the Kamiya-cho train-stop. Stopped clocks record the fact that the first atom bomb to be dropped in an act of war exploded at 8.15 am that day, 580m above the city, a giant fireball as hot as the sun. It happened 2km from where she stood. 'It was suddenly very bright," is all she can recall of the moment. The concussion that was shattering her city around her blasted her back about 5m. She fell, dazed, to the ground along with her fellow commuters. Kinue cried in pain as her clothes caught fire, combusting in the thermal blast of the bomb called little Boy. So began months of agony. "Everything hurt. I lay there a long time. My skin was falling off. My face was falling off." She wandered, half-mad in pain and shock, for what seemed days. Around her she could hear the screams and walls of other women. "I can't see," some cried," I can't see, it's all black." She peered at them and gasped in horror. their eye sockets were scorched, blackened holes. They had stared at the heart of the blast.

Fleeing to the river for safety, painted by a survivor.

Hiroshima was a city on a war footing, a military centre and site of munitions factories. Fearing, American incendiary bombs, citizens had already begun to demolish buildings to create firebreaks. Large cisterns had been built at strategic points to hold water for firefighting- Kinue joined others in a desperate quest for the cooling water. "I had never felt such a thirst," she says. She chooses to describe the days and months that followed in an almost impressionistic way. It seems certain that she witnessed things - broken, burned bodies, the smell of mass death - that none of us would want to keep in sharp relief. "Such pain I cannot describe it it was a city of the dying and the dead. The scale of what had happened dwarfed any aid efforts. Surviving medical staff were left to treat radiation burns and sickness with mercurechome, bandages and water. Later estimates put the number of people directly exposed to the blast at up to 320,000. By December, 1945, 140,000 of them had died.

Mitsui Kinue

If it could be called that, Kinue was lucky. Evacuated to the outlying suburbs of the city, she began, a long path to recovery. For years afterwards she watched great sloughs of her skin came off every time bathed. Kinue pauses and pulls up the: sleeves of her blazer, worn even,on " humid day. Her bare arms are a mass of scar tissue, her back and torso the same. She says that her damaged body did not seem to heal for years, but she never developed the leukemias and other blood diseases that killed so many in the decades after the bombing.

Instead she paid another price important in Japan where membership of a group is a vital cog in society. There was a great fear towards those who had been exposed to atomic radiation. Like many others, Kinue became enstranged from her family. She never had children. She never married. She was tainted and she had to find her own identity through her shared experience with other hibakusha.

A radiation victim. Hiroshima Day 1998 Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev call for disarmament.