Nagasaki

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On 9 August 1945, three days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the United States dropped a second atom bomb on Nagasaki, a small port city on Japan’s southernmost island. An estimated 74,000 people died within the first five months, and another 75,000 were injured.

Despite this being a monumental act of destruction, there has been little reporting of the long term effect on the victims. The aftermath in Nagasaki has been particularly poorly covered. In this timely book, fastidiously researched over ten years, Susan Southard aims to put this right. It focuses on five hibakusha (“bomb-affected people”) who survived the bombing and have used their experience to campaign for justice and peace.

The opening chapters deal with the day itself and describe in painful detail how lives were torn remorselessly and irreparably apart. It tells of flesh melted, eyeballs hanging out of sockets, flesh cooked and children simply evaporated, leaving only a “shadow”. Equally distressing are the descriptions of the aftermath as survivors picked through the ruins, witnessing nightmarish scenes in extreme pain, with little medical care or international aid.

The Japanese authorities were slow in admitting the full horror of what had happened, while the US government was reluctant to provide any help, not wanting to admit any liability. Victims were often left to medicate survivors themselves, sometimes having only cooking oil to apply to burns so deep bones were visible. As cancers and tumours have developed amongst survivors and their children, the American government has continued to be reluctant to provide significant medical help.

What the hibakusha found equally distressing was the persistent cover-up of events. The American authorities seized most of the photographs of the aftermath, allowing only the iconic, almost graceful aerial picture of the mushroom cloud to be publicised, focusing attention away from destruction on the ground. Images of dead children, obliterated homes and ruined lives were all repressed.

The numbers involved were fiddled, and even innocuous phrases such as “innocent people were killed” were censored. This meant that for a long time, much of the American public believed that casualties had been low. It is only by tireless campaigning and education by hibakusha and others that the truth about the day and its deadly fallout has slowly spread around the world.

Most inspiring in this powerful account of the enduring impact of nuclear war is the determination of the hibakusha. Initially too disabled or embarrassed by their disfigurements to speak out, they developed the confidence to tell their stories and campaign against nuclear weapons. In doing so, they became role models for the next generation: “I want to be strong like her” was the reaction of a Japanese school girl to a talk by one of the survivors.

I read this book while on a visit to Auschwitz. The concentration camps and nuclear war are perhaps the two most brutal reminders of the lengths our leaders will go to in maintaining their system.