Sunao Tsuboi, a survivor of the nuclear bomb attacks on Japan as a 20-year old University student, has lived with a reminder of that day for his entire life: the scars on his face. As he speaks to people about the horrors of nuclear war, he removes a picture and points to a young man with a shaved head who won’t look at the camera lens.
“That’s me,” he says. “We were hoping we would find some sort of medical help, but there was no treatment available, and no food or water. I thought I’d reached the end.”
The location is Miyuki Bridge, Hiroshima, three hours after the Enola Gay, a US B-29 bomber, dropped a 15-kiloton nuclear bomb on the city on the morning of August 6, 1945. Between 60,000 and 80,000 people were killed instantly; in the months that followed the death toll rose to 140,000.
In the photo, one of only a handful of surviving images taken in Hiroshima that day, Tsuboi is sitting on the road with several other people, their gaze directed at the gutted buildings around them. To one side, police officers douse schoolchildren with cooking oil to help soothe the pain of their burns. “People like me are losing the strength to talk about their experiences and continue the campaign against nuclear weapons,” says Tsuboi, a retired school principal who has travelled the world to warn of the horrors of nuclear warfare.
The average age of the 183,000 registered survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks rose just above 80 for the first time last month.
While each has a unique memory of the morning of August 6 and its aftermath, near disbelief at the scale of destruction is a theme that runs through the testimony of hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors).
Tsuboi remembers hearing a loud bang, then being blown into the air and landing 10 metres away. He regained consciousness to find he had been burned over most of his body, his sleeves and trouser legs ripped off by the force of the blast.
“My arms were badly burned and there seemed to be something dripping from my fingertips,” said Tsuboi, who is co-chair of Nihon Hidankyo, a nationwide organisation of atomic and hydrogen bomb sufferers.
“My back was incredibly painful, but I had no idea what had just happened. I assumed I had been close to a very large conventional bomb. I had no idea it was a nuclear bomb and that I’d been exposed to radiation. There was so much smoke in the air that you could barely see 100 metres ahead, but what I did see convinced me that I had entered a living hell on earth.
“There were people crying out for help, calling after members of their family. I saw a schoolgirl with her eye hanging out of its socket. People looked like ghosts, bleeding and trying to walk before collapsing. Some had lost limbs.
“There were charred bodies everywhere, including in the river. I looked down and saw a man clutching a hole in his stomach, trying to stop his organs from spilling out. The smell of burning flesh was overpowering.”
He was taken to a hospital, where he remained unconscious for more than a month. By the time he came to, a defeated Japan was under the control of the US-led allied occupation.
“I had no idea that the war had ended,” he said. “It was difficult to take in.”
Since then Tsuboi has been hospitalised 11 times, including three occasions when doctors told him he was about to die. He takes drugs for several illnesses, including two types of cancer that he says are connected to his exposure to radiation.
While the A-bomb survivors’ testimony is now a matter of historical record, the hibakusha are trying to ensure that their experiences don’t die with them, at a time when the world is facing nuclear threats from North Korea and Russia .
Earlier this year one of the most active branches of Hidankyo announced it would disband after its members, most of whom are in their 80s and 90s, conceded they were too old to continue their activities.
“In 10 years, I’d be surprised if there are many of us left,” says Hiroshi Shimizu, a Hidankyo official who was three years old when the Hiroshima bomb exploded 1.6km from his home.
“If the hibakusha continue to speak out against nuclear weapons, then other people will follow suit. That’s why we have to continue our campaign for as long as we are physically able.”
Hiroshima and Kunitachi, a small city in western Tokyo with a small population of bomb survivors, have tried to preserve the hibakusha legacy by setting up “storyteller” courses open to people who have no direct experience of the attacks and no survivors among their relatives. Hidankyo, meanwhile, has started reaching out to the children and grandchildren of hibakusha.
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