US atomic bomb and missile tests crowded them onto Ebeye. Now their former Marshall Islands paradise is “the Slum of the Pacific.”
Words and photos by Vlad Sokhin
The tiny island of Ebeye in Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands, has a total area of 0.36 square kilometres and is home to over 15,000 people, most of whom were moved there from nearby islands because of a US Army missile range-testing program that was launched in the late 1940s. Overcrowding, poverty, outbreaks of infectious diseases and a high level of unemployment has led some to refer to Ebeye as the ‘ghetto of the Pacific’. Until the 1940s, the island’s population was negligible. During the Second World War, Japan occupied the Marshall Islands and moved some 1,000 settlers there and when the US captured the islands in 1944, a new naval base and the movement of people from other parts of the Atoll rapidly augmented Ebeye’s population.
In preparation for ‘Operation Crossroads’, an extensive missile testing programme that would eventually comprise 67 blasts, the US military decided to move all non-US personnel from around the Kwajalein Atoll onto Ebeye, which lies around five kilometres north of Kwajalein Island, the largest in the Atoll. On 1 March 1954, under the code name of ‘Castle Bravo’, the US military detonated a dry fuel hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll, in the north of the island chain, which was to be the most powerful nuclear device ever exploded by the United States. Though the Bikini Islanders had been persuaded to relocate to a neighbouring island in 1946, where they had suffered shortages and malnutrition, members of other nearby communities on Rongelap island were not evacuated until 3 days after the blast, causing many to suffer the effects of radiation sickness and birth defects.
Keen to return to their ancestral lands, Bikini islanders were tentatively allowed to come back to their homes three years after ‘Castle Bravo’ but had to be moved again after many developed leukaemia and thyroid tumours.
Over the coming decades, some islanders continued to return and try to reestablish their old communities but periodic tests of the soil, water and plant life on Bikini islands consistently suggested that the place had been so polluted by the nuclear fallout of ‘Castle Bravo’ and other tests that it was unsafe to live on the Atoll any longer. Many Bikini Islanders ended up on Ebeye, now the most densely populated of the Marshall islands, with the help of Greenpeace which in 1985 organised a mass evacuation from areas affected by fallout.
As the US nuclear testing programme developed and grew in the 1950s, most of the people living around the Kwajalein Atoll, where various US military installations that assist the nuclear test sites are based, were relocated from their homes and into a planned settlement on Ebeye. After they were joined by the ‘nuclear migrants’ from Bikini and other northern atolls, the poorly constructed settlements on Ebeye became increasingly crowded, leading to a polio outbreak in 1963, a measles outbreak in 1978 and regular occurrences of cholera, tuberculosis and other diseases up to the present day. The most overcrowded settlement of Northern Camp is a large shanty town without water supply or sewage system. Since much of the population is dependent on the service industry at US installations, unemployment is a major problem.
According to George Junior, a health worker at Ebeye’s hospital, ongoing missile testing around Kwajalein Atoll continues to impact on the health of local people. ‘When the Americans test their missiles and then the rain comes, the entire population of Ebeye gets sick. We have diarrhoea, flu and conjunctivitis. Such symptoms continue for 10 to 15 days and then everyone gets better until the next tests’ he says. And while US personnel enjoy excellent health care in places like Kwajalein Hospital, the majority of Ebeye residents who need emergency care are often referred to hospitals in Majuro, the administrative capital of the Marshall Islands, or to Manila or Hawaii since they do not have clearance to enter military installations.
Vlad Sokhin (Russia/Portugal) is a documentary photographer, videographer and multimedia producer. He covers social, cultural, environmental, health and human rights issues around the world, including post-conflict and natural disaster zones. You can see more of his work on his website. View all of the Atomic Dust photos here.
Headline photo by Vlad Sokhin shows North Camp, one of the most populated areas on Ebeye. Ebeye is the second most densely populated city in the world, home to at least 15,000.
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