We, Survivors of the Atomic Bomb
Tales of the Atomic Age PART 3
Text Pierpaolo Mittica
Video Alessandro Tesei, Pierpaolo Mittica
Photos Alessandro Tesei

We, Survivors of the Atomic Bomb

Hiroshima is a name no one can forget. A name that has entered history as a result of one of the most tragic events humanity has ever experienced: the unleashing of a nuclear device against a civilian population. On 6 August 1945, the United States decided to use the first atomic bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy”, developed in the laboratories at Los Alamos in the effort to smash Japanese resistance and bring World War II to an end. The choice of the target was the city of Hiroshima, in the south of Japan, with a population of 255,000 inhabitants.

Miyajima, View of Hiroshima from the Tori Gate. The island of Miyajima is located a few kilometers by boat from Hiroshima. While Hiroshima is considered a place of suffering, the island of Miyajima is one of the most important places of spirituality in Japan, where people are believed to live with the gods

Kunihiko Bonkohara was there that day. On 6 August 1945 he was in Hiroshima, where he lived with his family. That day his mother and sister never returned home, engulfed by the fireball. “I was five years old at the time. There were four of us in the family: my father, my mother and my elder sister,” recalls Kunihiko Bonkohara. “We lived two kilometres from the centre. That day in August, before eight in the morning, my sister had gone to high school, and my mother went downtown. Suddenly there was a blinding flash.

My father immediately pushed me under a desk and covered me with his body. At that moment the thunder of an explosion enveloped us followed by a strong blast. The house shook, the windows and door were destroyed. All the furniture collapsed and the roof was blown away. When the dust settled, my father got up and pulled me out from under the objects covering the desk. I could see my father’s back bleeding profusely and turning red.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) was the only structure left standing in the area where the first atomic bomb exploded on August 6, 1945. It is a symbol representing the cost of war and the importance of peace

There were glass splinters everywhere in my arms and legs. Soon after, we went to the Teman River to wash with my father. We saw the city of Hiroshima engulfed in flames, the smoke billowing and the sky turning black. A black rain began to fall from the sky. I then saw a lot of people wandering through the rubble with folded arms, their hair and skin burned. Their faces were red, almost blackened. The view of the river from the Aisho Bridge was unforgettable. The corpses carried away by the current lay motionless… I don’t know how to describe it. If such a word exists… I would say… hell…”

 

Kyoto, women in traditional dress in the famous Arashiyama forest

The next morning Kunihiko Bonkohara’s father went searching for his wife and daughter amid the debris of the city swept away by the blast. He turned over the charred corpses he saw in the streets. He never found them. Unfortunately Kunihiko Bonkohara’s sister and mother were among the 80,000 people that the bomb carried away instantly. Kunihiko Bonkohara survived the Hiroshima atomic bomb and is one of the few hibakusha, literally “those struck by the bomb”, who are still alive and can recount those tragic moments.

Hiroshima, Peace Memorial Museum. This is a wristwatch that stopped at the moment of the explosion, at 8:15 am. The Museum contains personal items and documents collected in the days following the tragedy.

He was there that day. Like Rsaybaev Koksubai Umurtaevich. On 29 August 1949 he was living in Znamenka, a village of 2,000 souls in Kazakhstan, bordering the atomic weapons testing site of the former Soviet Union. That day the USSR’s first nuclear bomb was tested at Semipalatinsk-21. Semipalatinsk-21 was the code name of one of the most secret cities of the former Soviet Union: Kurchatov. It did not exist on maps and was known only to those engaged in developing Soviet nuclear weapons. Built in 1947, it was renamed in honour of the nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov, the father of the Soviet nuclear programme. In this area in the desolate steppe of Kazakhstan, the USSR’s first A-bomb was developed and exploded on 29 August 1949. Another 456 were tested through to 1989.

Rsaybaev Koksubai Umurtaevich, 83 years old in his house in the contaminated village of Znamenka. the nearest to the Polygon. He's one of the direct witnesses to the atomic explosions above ground. His wife, son and daughter died of cancer

Rsaybaev Koksubai Umurtaevich has seen and heard hundreds of explosions. “Wherever I looked, wherever I turned my eyes I could see the mushrooms generated by the detonations,” recounts Rsaybaev Koksubai Umurtaevich, sprawling on his sofa. “People began to blame these terrifying devices for what was happening to them. They were getting sick, waking up every day with reddened eyes like after sleepless nights…

In the foreground the cemetery of the village of Znamenka. The village cemetery is very large for a village of 2,000 inhabitants. This is caused by the high rate of cancer mortality due to the proximity of the test site.

A mood that influenced people’s lives. A monstrous weapon aimed at our people, it wreaked havoc among all the populations living in the Semipalatinsk region. All were exposed to this terrifying contamination. This was the way the experiments were conducted, every year ever more intense, every year more powerful. After 1956 the explosions intensified so much that they covered the whole region in a white dust, even the wheat was completely sprinkled with it.

Buildings inside the site used to test atomic explosions. Kazakhstan Huge buildings were erected inside the area to test the effects of the atomic bombs and to protect the cameras to document the explosions

They were explosions of different types, almost waves of them. Sometimes, they would start when we were on the streets and we were forced to look for shelter somewhere maybe on the other side of the river, until they told us it was safe to come out. The windows of many houses were shattered, people were exasperated and the streets were permeated with a terrible smell. The contamination affected everyone. Just take a look at the cemetery and you will see. When I moved here there wasn’t even a single grave, and the nearest graveyard, was 14 kilometers away, it was very small.

This is the only statue of Josef Stalin that has remained in a public place in the former Soviet Union apart from the statue of Stalin outside the Stalin Museum in Gori, Republic of Georgia. All other statues have been removed as a result of the crimes committed by Stalin. In Semipalatinsk in a small park hidden in the suburbs a local resident recovered several busts of Soviet politicians from the landfill, including Stalin, and displayed them to the public.

Look at what it’s like now … The most significant fact is that young people are the most deeply affected. All those who died over the past year were no older than forty years of age.