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Nobel Prize

‘With one bomb, my beloved city was incinerated’: Hiroshima survivor tells why the world, not just North Korea, must give up nuclear weapons

Kevin Rafferty says the costs of a nuclear weapons exchange, and the words of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, should motivate us to be rid of these weapons forever

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 December, 2017, 11:08am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 December, 2017, 7:33pm

An elderly Asian-Canadian woman gave a powerful acceptance speech at this year’s Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony. Key passages from Setsuko Thurlow’s speech should be inscribed on the walls of the United Nations Security Council.

Thurlow is a hibakusha, an atomic bomb survivor. On August 6, 1945, she was a 13-year-old girl working in a government office in Hiroshima as cheap labour. At 8.15am, she recalls, “I saw a blinding bluish-white flash from the window”. With immense effort, she emerged from the ruins of the building.

“Processions of ghostly figures shuffled by … Parts of their bodies were missing. Flesh and skin hung from their bones. Some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands. Some with their bellies burst open, their intestines hanging out … with one bomb my beloved city was obliterated. Most of its residents were civilians who were incinerated, vaporised, carbonised.”

After hearing this speech, could Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping or Kim Jong-un, all of them leaders of nuclear powers, contemplate using such a bomb?

The Nobel victory of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons offers a challenge to world leaders, and should stir the consciences of all human beings.

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Historians and philosophers argue about the use of atomic bombs in 1945. US president Harry Truman, who made the decision, described it as “the most terrible bomb in the history of the world”, but deluded himself by claiming that it would only be used against military targets and not against women or children.

Others claim that the atomic bombs saved the lives of US troops who would otherwise have had to fight their way through Japan.

Another defence is that in war, dead people are dead people, whether killed in hand-to-hand combat, by soldiers bayoneting civilians, by firebombs or by drone bombs from on high. More than 100,000 civilians died and a million were displaced in the firebombing of Tokyo by American B-29s on March 9-10, 1945.

Idealists would like to ban wars. Wars kill people, destroy societies, ruin economies and leave festering sores for later generations to use as an excuse for further armament.

Realists respond that war is a natural human condition, and that efforts to outlaw war are futile. How else can you get rid of tyrants? The problem is by the time of the war, the tyrant is so entrenched that digging him out creates more problems. Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi are examples.

In war rules on the rights of prisoners, the wounded and non-combatants get thrown away. Firebombs, atomic bombs, even precision drones do not choose between military and civilian, innocent and guilty any more than do battle-crazed soldiers.

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But the terrifying power of nuclear weapons means it is time to ban them. The most powerful nuclear weapons today are 3,000 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. Imagine a bomb even 10 times as powerful as Hiroshima’s “Little Boy” dropped on a modern city. It would be the end of modern civilisation, even without retaliation. After retaliation, humanity would be dead.

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Hibakusha Thurlow is right when she says it is time to end “the mushroom cloud of fear”. The graduation of impoverished North Korea to atomic weapons power is a nightmare too far. Given Kim’s boasts about seeing America dance in nuclear conflagration, which terrorists will be the first to benefit from his atomic knowledge, especially in return for hard cash? It’s specious to claim that Kim feels safer protected by nuclear weapons; it makes him more vulnerable.

But someone should tell Trump that it is idiotic to engage in a game of threats with Kim. That’s not sleepwalking to nuclear war, as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres fears, but marching there with guns blazing.

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Can Trump play the trump card, and bring Putin and Xi with him – not mere denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, but denuclearisation of the world? It will take time, not least because there are almost 16,000 nuclear warheads stockpiled, and negotiating the how, where and when to dismantle them will take years. But it would give China and Russia reason to put real pressure on Kim.

The much-maligned United Nations General Assembly showed the way forward in July with its treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, signed by 122 countries, with the Netherlands against and Singapore abstaining. However, 69 countries, including the nuclear powers, Nato members and Japan and South Korea did not vote.

Let Thurlow have the final word: “Nine nations still threaten to incinerate entire cities, to destroy life on earth, to make our beautiful world uninhabitable for future generations … These weapons are not a necessary evil; they are the ultimate evil.”

Kevin Rafferty, a former Osaka University professor and World Bank official, is a journalist who has edited daily newspapers in 30 cities worldwide