Farewell to Bravo survivor’s voice

Bravo survivor Lemeyo Abon pictured with great grand neice Mita Eknilang (middle) and neighbor Nitha Milne in January. Photo: Hilary Hosia.
Bravo survivor Lemeyo Abon pictured with great grand niece Mita Eknilang (middle) and neighbor Nitha Milne in January. Photo: Hilary Hosia.

Bravo fallout survivor Lemeyo Abon died this week after collapsing and going into a coma on February 5. One of the few remaining Rongelap people alive who experienced the “snowstorm” of radioactive fallout from the 1954 Bravo test, she was in the Majuro hospital Intensive Care Unit until her death early Monday morning.

“Lemeyo was full of life and at the same time was a strong advocate for her cause as a nuclear survivor,” long-time Rongelap Mayor James Matayoshi said.

She died just a few days short of the 64th anniversary of the March 1 Bravo test at Bikini, the largest hydrogen bomb exploded by the United States. Lemeyo’s story is told in the book Longing for My Home Island by Hanyuda Yuki with large, graphic photos by Shimada Kousei.

“When I was 13 years old, the Bravo hydrogen bomb exploded on the next island,” Lemeyo says in the book. “It was early morning when we were preparing for breakfast outside the house.

“All of a sudden, dazzling light glared around the area and then the sky became red very quickly. We heard the very loud sound, ‘BOOM!’ and the ground began to shake violently. The roof was blown away and a number of coconut trees had fallen down.  Indeed I was scared.”

Over her lifetime Lemeyo was interviewed by a long procession of international journalists with German and Australian television crews interviewing her in 2018. Her last interview was with a Swedish journalist in late January.

Tributes to Lemeyo began pouring in shortly after her death. Lemeyo, 77, was an eloquent advocate for justice for Marshall Islands victims of the US nuclear weapons testing programs.

She was “a strong advocate for Rongelap for a long time,” said Alson Kelen, a Bikinian who is a member of the RMI’s National Nuclear Commission.

In December, the Japan Times quoted Lemeyo, who described the devastating social and cultural impact of the nuclear testing and subsequent relocations on the Rongelap community. “What’s important is a place to call home, a place to live freely,” she said. “The identity of being a Marshallese is gone when you’re moved to another place. In a way, it took away our identity, and that’s what bothers me most.”

National Nuclear Commissioner Bill Graham said that despite the personal pain and suffering Lemeyo endured, “she could summon some inner strength to block that out of her mind and appear to be as cheerful a person as one might imagine.”

In 2012, Lemeyo was present in Geneva when the UN Human Rights Council received the report of UN Special Rapporteur Calin Georgescu on the Marshall Islands nuclear testing legacy.

“At the UN in 2012, when she began to read her statement to the Council and gathering of the world’s nations, she caused a busy room of self-important people to stop and truly listen,” said Dr. Barbara Rose Johnston, an environmental scientist and anthropologist who was with Lemeyo in Geneva.

“Her two-minute account of what it means to survive nuclear war resonated. It was the only moment in the entire day in which the room stilled, and people truly listened. If ever there was a moment that gave new wind in the Nuclear Prohibition Treaty sails — that was the moment.”

Lemeyo is survived by nine children — Charity Jilej, Wilmina Almen, and Banter Abon, C-Rose Abon, Grace Abon, Christopher Abon, Mindy Abon, Irene Abon, and Tommy Abon. She also has 40 grandchildren and 39 great grandchildren.

Read more about this in the February 23, 2018 edition of the Marshall Islands Journal.