The following is the test of an e-mail interview with Marshall Islands Senator Tomaki Juda that Skagway DDF students Erica Harris and Shelby Surdyk conducted for their piece, For the Good of Mankind. The students are raising money for a trip to the islands this summer. An account has been set up through the Skagway Development Corporation. See information below.
Students: Is there anything being done to return to Bikini and if so what? Is there a timetable for their return?
Senator: At this time, no. We do not have enough money to do the radiological cleanup of Bikini. It will take about $300 million, which is why we have a lawsuit against the U.S. at this point. So, there is no timetable.
Students: What are the current conditions on Kili?
Senator: Kili is a single island, as compared to Bikini Atoll, which is an atoll with 29 islands. There is not enough local food grown on Kili so we have to import most of the food we eat. Kili is surrounded by rough seas most of the year so it is very hard to fish and take care of our families.
Students: What was the relationship between the Japanese and the Marshallese before WWII?
Senator: Before WW II it was fine, but the Japanese really didnt live on Bikini then. Most of the contact between our people and the Japanese was during the war when there was a watch station erected on Bikini. The soldiers were very mean to many of our younger men. They beat them on a regular basis and treated our religious leaders very badly.
Students: When the Americans Soldiers liberated Bikini, did they say anything to the Bikinians? How did they act?
Senator: When the Americans first came in 1945 they treated us really well. They had doctors with them and gave us a lot of different kinds of food, and they were very nice to us. Most of our people speak very fondly of the Americans at that time because the war years were very rough for all the Marshall Islands as food and supplies were very scarce.
Students: Theres mixed perceptions of Commander Ben Wyatt, did he mislead the Bikinians? How was he viewed at the time? How is he viewed now?
Senator: To the Bikinians Commodore Wyatt was the ruler of the world, he really gave that impression to us. He appeared very powerful and we felt that he had to be listened to because the Americans had just beaten the Japanese in the war. A few of the Bikinians thought that since he was asking them to give up their lands to end all world wars and for the good of mankind, that was a good thing. Today, the Bikinians feel like this man misled them into thinking they would be able to go back to Bikini soon after they were moved. He was the one that made all the promises to us on behalf of the U.S. government, so to many of us he is perceived as a liar.
Students: How is Chief Juda viewed by the Marshallese? What characteristics did he posses that made him a good leader? What human qualities did he possess that perhaps hindered his success? What was he like as a person? As a father? As a friend? How did he treat others?
Senator: My father had a lot of difficult decisions to make as a leader even though he was uneducated. Many people in the world at that time did not understand nuclear weapons. My father was a good kind man who always treated people fairly, that was the quality everyone liked about him. He really cared about everyone and he took his job seriously. He always tried to get everyone to agree before making a decision for the community. He will always be remembered for making some of the most difficult decisions for our people. To this day he is remembered as a great leader.
Students: What is the Bikini church service like? What are the essential beliefs that the Bikinians have about God and their islands and their position in the world?
Senator: We are mostly Protestants so we follow the same format in church as in any Protestant church anywhere. We still believe that God is in control of our destiny and that he will watch over us as we struggle away from our islands.
Students: In some views the Bikinians have overcome some major obstacles. Can you explain their hope for the future?
Senator: We believe our future depends on educating our children. We have over 400 children in schools in the United States, we have many Americans and Japanese teaching in our schools on Kili Island and on Ejit Island because we want our children to grow up to be responsible people. Maybe someday we will get back to Bikini, but until then it is in our interest to get educated.
Students: Describe the character of the Bikinians.
Senator: Marshallese customs revolve around being kind to others. We dont like people who brag or feel proud of themselves, we admire people who are humble and who work hard and who are honest. We encourage people to give up smoking and drinking and to live clean lives. This is not always easy to accomplish.
Students: How did the Rongelap contamination affect the Bikinians?
Senator: We did not like what happened to them, and felt sorry for them. Many of our people are related to people from Rongelap and we have worked with them over the years trying to get compensated from the U.S.
Students: What is your definition of home?
Senator: Marshallese custom provides us with our definition of home, and that is our land. No matter where someone from the Marshall Islands goes, even if it is very far away, home is always where our land is.
Students: Can you describe or give an example of a Marshallese political activist?
Senator: Marshallese people are very political just because of the fact that they have to live on islands. So almost everyone is active is some way, almost everyone votes in the elections, for example. An activist here would probably be someone who actively opposes the government.
Students: If you had to make a statement to the U.S. Government (about anything) what would it be? What would be the tone?
Senator: The Marshall Islands has given so much to the U.S.: our lands and our people for nuclear testing, Kwajalein Atoll to shoot your missiles at, we vote with you all the time in the United Nations, we have a relationship of free association with your government, etc: so why cant you make right what happened here over 60 years ago? You spend billions upon billions of dollars on the war in Iraq, where there are Marshallese people fighting in the U.S. uniform, so why cant you just use about $2 billion and clean up the mess you made in the Marshall Islands?
Students: We see the Marshallese through the lens of Americans and American culture, what is it that we need to know to understand the Marshallese character?
Senator: We are very humble and forgiving people. We dont hate Americans for what they did, we just dont like how their government treated us. We respect Americans like they are our older bothers and sisters, even our mothers and fathers. We want them to do the right thing.
Students: Is there any relief in the knowledge that perhaps the nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands prevented their use in war?
Senator: Yes, we have told this to journalists many times. The cold war was for a large part fought and won on the beaches of Bikini Atoll, and the world is a better place because of it. We feel like we all did a great service to mankind by giving up our islands.
Students: Do you think that if the word mankind had not been misinterpreted or translated as God, your father would have agreed to relocate the Bikinians?
Senator: All Bikinians have always felt like we had no choice in this decision. The Americans were very powerful at that time as they are now. They had just defeated the Japanese in WW II. We never felt like we had a choice, so it would not have mattered how these words were translated, we felt that we had to go.
Students: In your personal opinion, if the Bikinians had refused to be relocated, would the U.S. have continued with Operation Crossroads without any regard for the welfare of the Bikinians?
Senator: We would have never refused, as I said, we had no choice in the matter.
Students: Where were you born?
Senator: On Bikini Atoll. I was 4 when we were moved in 1946.
Students: Have you visited Bikini?
Senator: Many, many times. I was there two weeks ago with the President of the Marshall Islands.
Students: What is an example of a Marshallese person pledging their patriotism? An example for Americans would be placing their hands over their hearts while singing the National Anthem.
Senator: We also have an anthem and a flag. We are a very proud people, and many times we express this pride publicly when we talk to journalists and just when we talk to people.
Shelby and Erica's fundraiser for the Marshall Islands is be supported by SDC-Community Development Services (SDC-CDS). Checks can be made out to SDC-Community Development Services for the Marshall Islands Trip which entitles the donor to claim those monies as a charitable donation on next year's tax return. For more information, e-mail email@example.com