Interview: Nuclear tests in Polynesia

Hinamoeura Cross wants to “educate and to denuclearize memories”

By Jean-Tenahe FAATAU, outremers 360°

Now in her thirties, Hinamoeura Cross is battling leukemia. It’s an illness she has endured, and which has been part of her life, since she was 25. The leukemia diagnosis served as an electric shock, spurring the Polynesian into activism, and she has not hesitated to speak up ever since at international tribunals to denounce the thirty years of atomic tests and their consequences suffered by her country since 1966. Most recently, Hinamoeura Cross went to Vienna for the meeting on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons organized by ICAN. And during the period when, on July 2, Polynesia commemorates the first of the 193 tests that tore open its sky and lagoons, she describes her commitment, her illness and her fight to “educate and to denuclearize Polynesian memories”.

Outremers 360: You participated in Vienna in a meeting on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Can you describe the goal of that meeting?

Hinamoeura Cross: I was invited by ICAN, an international organization that brings together a number of other organizations and which supports the abolition of nuclear weapons. More exactly, I was invited by ICAN France, represented by Jean-Marie Collin, and in fact it was his idea to have someone who could represent French Polynesia, because French Polynesia was the site of the atomic tests between 1966 and 1996.

But when we talk about the abolition of nuclear weapons we should note that the treaty includes two articles (numbers 6 and 7) which require that all territories affected by nuclear testing must have appropriate medical support. And it is in this sense that, for me, it was interesting to go there as a Polynesian and say that France, even though it has not ratified the treaty, does not respect articles 6 and 7, since we do not have medical support appropriate to what we have suffered for 30 years.

Hinamoeura Cross at the ICAN conference, Vienna, June 2022. (Photo: Marlene Koenig for ICAN)

Indeed, we have one hospital and two clinics on the island of Tahiti. But still today, thousands of Polynesians have to seek treatment in France, specifically in Paris. And hundreds of children with leukemia are treated there. I know a young person from here who has been getting treatment in Paris with her mother for almost four years. I find it scandalous that we don’t have a hospital worthy of the name, given the 193 nuclear tests that have taken place in Polynesia. I think everyone with radiation-induced diseases should be treated in Polynesia.

I also went to Vienna to say that France does not recognize transgenerational diseases. As far as France is concerned, all the children who became sick after December 31, 1998 were not affected by exposure to radioactivity, whereas in other countries it is seen as obvious. Personally, I subscribe to the transgenerational evidence since my grandmother, my mother and my aunt all had thyroid cancer. My aunt had breast cancer as well. I had nothing until I was 24; then I discovered I have leukemia, something I am still fighting today. So I signed up to this fight as a witness, and as a Polynesian, but also as a victim of the French nuclear tests because my illness is a radiation-induced disease.

How do the other countries that have ratified the treaty, and which are also nuclear “victims”, tie these transgenerational illnesses to nuclear testing?

For them it’s obvious, a daily reality, and there isn’t even a question about it, while I struggle in Polynesia to help people understand that my illness is due to nuclear testing. Only in Polynesia, in France, do we have to try to justify ourselves. And it’s also for that reason that we are demanding an independent epidemiological study. There is a report by INSERM that left us totally in the dark and has absolutely no validity. That’s another reason why it’s important to go and speak internationally, to alert them. The communication we have from France on this subject is not serious. All we have are crumbs and the 2010 Compensation Act is part of that.

To that point, you have spoken about how you started the process of requesting compensation under this law but then you gave up. Why?

I gave up, but I am going to try again. When I return to Tahiti I will do it. I gave up early on because of all the paperwork, the administrative burden, and also reading certain judicial decisions in which the sick were identified, and above all by realizing what the cost was. For me, that was very hard psychologically because the burden of proof for people is very heavy. Imagine, I compile my dossier, I am recognized as a victim of atomic testing, I get 500 euros and that’s it. Except that the illness I have is incurable, it will never heal. Every time I stop the chemotherapy that suppresses it, I am doomed.

And then the administrative burden slows people, sick people, down.  And there is also a whole mentality, people who are afraid. Before talking about my illness —I don’t know why nor how to explain it — but I was ashamed and afraid. I think there are still societal traumas associated with this period that explain why taking on a request for compensation is even harder. Since I am an anti-nuclear activist, I want to take it all the way. I will compile my dossier, but I am worried about the psychological toll this decision will take on me because I live with this illness every day. It’s a sword of Damocles that can’t be quantified and won’t go away by being given a check.

France has not ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons; what can one expect from this meeting and your participation?

The idea was to bring the fight beyond French Polynesia and to speak to all the States present, and thus put pressure on France. And I have really felt a solidarity among all these activists and support from them in all these meetings. They have wondered how French Polynesia, which they consider a colony, can benefit from articles 6 and 7.

They concluded that a procedure needs to be put in place for Polynesia —which cannot ratify the treaty because it is not an independent State — that could provide financial aid for the sick. So it was a verbal commitment that has begun to be put down on paper, and it’s for sure a long-term proposition but it’s a start. We really feel this solidarity even though we are just a tiny dot on the map. I should point out that no nuclear armed state has signed this treaty.

A scan of a (digitally restored) hardcopy of a French army picture of the Licorne thermonuclear test in French Polynesia. (Photo: Pierre J/Flickr)

At the same time, there is an international context with the war in Ukraine, and we are all too aware of the threat brandished by Vladimir Putin. This context must certainly have been raised during this meeting…

Yes, it was just chance as the meeting had been planned for the end of June for a while and then in the meantime the war in Ukraine broke out. This enabled more support to be given to this treaty, because the nuclear threat is very present. It gave grist to the mill.

There was a round table on the consequences of the nuclear tests last year in Paris, during which the CPS — the Social Welfare Fund in Polynesia — demanded a reimbursement of all the costs it had incurred for treating cancers, patients, the radioactivity-induced illnesses throughout the ‘80s. It still hasn’t had any response. What is your feeling about this?

I am totally disgusted by this. I already had the opportunity to talk about this at the UN on October 8, 2019. I denounced the fact that there are people sickened across generations, and I said that the 193 nuclear tests carried about by France were a crime against humanity. I also said that today we have a second crime, and that is that France condemns us to pay for the illnesses caused by these tests; I find that unacceptable.

In fact, if you look at the history, before the nuclear tests, France was responsible for health care in Polynesia and one already knew at that time the consequences such tests could have within a ten-year timespan. Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened in 1945 and the first health consequences emerged in 1955. France carried out its first test in 1966 and in 1977 France handed over health care responsibility to Polynesia. So for me, that was calculated in advance.  Not only were we bombed, poisoned at home, in our lagoon, but added to that we are made to pay for it.

How do you plan to realize your commitment to activism and to the anti-nuclear movement?

My plan is to create a Foundation. And there will be a place for education in this Foundation. I’ll explain: I am talking of education and of denuclearizing memories. There is a lot to do on this subject. When I was in Tahiti and I explained that I was sick because of the nuclear tests, they took me for a bit of a crank. In Vienna, for the speakers from other countries who are also victims of nuclear testing, it’s obvious. And I told myself that no, I was not a crank. It was a relief.

Cross would like to create a Foundation with a library named after Bruno Barrillot. (Photo of Barrillot by Marie-Helene Villierme)

And so I would like to create this Foundation, with a library named after Bruno Barrillot (a leader of the anti-nuclear movement). I would like to assemble everything we know about nuclear, and also provide a workspace for Polynesian students, where the Foundation can fund doctoral theses and memoirs so that Polynesians can recover their history and begin to write about it. And also the Foundation aims to be international to continue peaceful exchanges with other countries.

July 2 is an important date in Polynesia: organizations historically engaged in the anti-nuclear fight and in patient care, commemorate the first Polynesian test (July 2, 1966). I imagine you will be there?

Yes, I absolutely have to be in Tahiti on that date. We will hold a march with the association, Moruroa and Tatou and the Protestant church Ma’ohi, and after that we will go to the commemorative stone for the tests at the top of the Tu Marama Square in Papeete, where there will be discussions and singing. And I will have the chance to speak just before the president of the Ma’ohi Protestant church.

Once the Foundation is established you will be able to support Hinamoeura’s work there. Until then, if you would like to help, please get in touch with her via her Facebook page.

This article was first published on July 2, 2022 by outremers 360° and is republished with kind permission. Translation from the original French by Linda Pentz Gunter.

Headline photo of Hinamoeura Cross at the United Nations, courtesy of Hinamoeura Cross.

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