Preserving a horrific moment in history

 

JAPAN: Hiroshima's peace museum carefully documents the shocking events of the first time an atomic bomb was used against people, reports Judith Crosbie

There were only three pictures taken on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Local newspaper photographer Yoshito Matsushige was too traumatised by what he saw on the morning of August 6th, 1945 to continue recording the first time such a weapon was used.

The pictures he did take that day betray the paralysis he felt - the images show people from behind, hiding the emotion that journalists usually try to convey. Still the horror is obvious: clothes blown from people's bodies; hair matted from the fierce blast; buildings crushed; utter confusion among the victims as they huddle together searching for an explanation for what just happened.

Sixty years on, the events of that day continue to shock. The Peace Memorial Museum and Park in Hiroshima stands as a testimony to what happened. Seconds after the bomber, the Enola Gay, offloaded its cargo over Hiroshima the bomb exploded in mid-air in a fireball some 280 metres in diameter. When it hit the ground it created an inferno that caused 13 square kilometres of total destruction. Houses were flattened, trees ripped up and concrete buildings wiped out. The ground temperature was 3,000 degrees celcius which meant anyone close to the hypocentre died in the fire.

The museum has carefully collected data to convey the unprecedented effects of the atomic bomb on the city. Pictures and models before the bombing show a bustling city of narrow streets packed with small wooden houses. After the bombing only a wasteland was left. Displays show clothes, some only tiny trousers and shorts worn by children, which were burnt on those close to the hypocentre. Exposed skin fell off like rags exposing flesh and bone. Glass bottles, ceramics, roof tiles and even sewing needles melted and were fused together.

Doctors, some themselves suffering from burns and radiation poisoning, were bewildered as to how to deal with the injured and had only basic burn treatments and herbal remedies. Some victims had horrific injuries as a result of burns or flying glass. Pictures at the museum show one man had part of his face blown off exposing his teeth and mouth. A young brother and sister showed no outward signs of physical injury but turned up to a clinic complaining of bleeding gums and diarrhoea. The silent effects of the radiation eventually killed them.

But the museum is also shocking for other reasons. The calculated reason for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima as a means of dissuading the Soviet Union from challenging the power of the US is documented in letters and telegrams from the day. Also well documented are the reasons the US chose Hiroshima and Nagasaki as there were no prisoner of war camps set up in these cities and the cities were of a sufficient size. The grim decision to drop the bomb without warning is also stressed.

In the aftermath of the bombing the British government controlled Hiroshima and restricted reporting of the event while the US prevented academic research of diseases related to radiation effects during the occupation.

The Korean victims - many of whom were labourers drafted into the war effort in the important port city of Hiroshima - are also remembered in one section of the museum, though after the bombing these victims were ignored.

The Peace Memorial park where the museum is located is littered with memorials to the bombing. The cenotaph in the centre of the park contains the names of all those known to have been killed in the bombing. The flame beneath it will be extinguished when the last nuclear weapons have been destroyed.

A monument to the tens of thousands of Koreans who suffered in the bomb was moved into the park in 1999. A children's memorial was erected in memory of the many children killed and specifically remembers Sadako Sasaki who died of leukaemia 10 years after the bombing at age 12 after struggling against her illness.

The remains of the imposing A-Bomb dome which was once a commercial centre to showcase industrial and cultural products of the city stands preserved just beyond the park. It was declared in 1996 a Unesco World Heritage site but some victims had hoped the only remaining structure of Hiroshima before the bombing would be destroyed given the painful memories it evokes. Because the bomb detonated right above the building some of the walls remained leaving the iron structure of the dome and part of the building.

The Hiroshima city government is keen not to forget August 6th, 1945. The Peace Memorial Museum and Park is seen as an important tool to teach people about the harmful effects of nuclear weapons and the city government has adopted the goal of ridding the world of such arms.

"No other people will be able to do what we are doing because we are the ones who experienced the atomic bombing. Hiroshima has a responsibility and a mission to do this," says Nobuyuki Teshima, director of the international peace promotion department.

The city arranges meetings for mayors around the world to come together and work out ways to put pressure on governments to abandon nuclear weapons.

Despite the ever-increasing danger from rogue states acquiring nuclear arms and perhaps the naivety in wishing an end to nuclear armaments, Hiroshima persists in its efforts.

Every time a nuclear weapon is tested the mayor sends a letter of protest to the country's leaders. Dozens have been sent to the US, China and France. Has Hiroshima ever received a response to the letters? "No, no direct response," admits Teshima.