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Bombing Bali Ha'i: we love tropical islands, but that doesn't prevent us from using them for target practice.

"You always hurt the one you love," goes the old Mills Brothers song. Perhaps this profound human paradox explains why we have chosen tropical islands, the embodiment of an earthly paradise, as the staging grounds for hell on earth: war and weapons testing. Its been going on for 50 years, and shows no signs of ending any time soon.

From Gauguin's Tahiti to South Pacific's Bali Ha'i, islands have long represented an escape to a sensual, carefree existence. Yet at the same time, they have been the victims of an atrocious pattern of military colonialism over the past half-century.

Beginning with Japanese air attacks on Honolulu and the U.S. territory of Guam in 1941, the peaceful PaCific islands were transformed into the "Pacific Theater" in a war they never made. From 1943 through 1944, Allied soldiers island-hopped through the Gilbert, the Marshall, the Caroline and the Mariana islands in an effort to capture or leapfrog over Japanese strong holds. Thousands of Micronesians died in the fighting, which is remembered with the hundreds of shells and tanks that can still be found on the beaches of Palau.

But our destructive attraction to islands didn't stop with the end of World War II. In the 1940s, the U.S. began testing weapons on the red soil of Kahoolawe, an island sacred to Hawaiians, exploding everything from guided missiles to howitzers. It finally agreed to stop testing in May of last year.

Most infamously, the U.S. set off 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands beginning in the 1940s. The inhabitants of Bikini were resettled for the 1946 "Operation Crossroads" - an underwater nuclear explosion that sent a mile-wide dome of water shooting into" the sky. A U.S. propaganda film from the period shows the happy natives waving and singing "You Are My Sunshine" in Marshallese as they row off to their new island home. "The islanders are a nomadic group," the film's narrator assures his American audience, "and are well-pleased that the Yanks are going to add a little variety to their lives."

If the islanders were pleased at relocation, they became less than pleased in March 1954, when the U.S. detonated an H-bomb over Bikini Atoll that was a thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Hundreds of islanders were victims of radiation - suffering radiation burns, vomiting and diarrhea, miscarriages, thyroid cancer and leukemia. The victims were not only those who were directly exposed, but also people who ate contaminated fruit, vegetables and fish. "You have to understand the relationship of Pacific peoples to their land to understand what a tragedy this is," says Ruth Lechte, who directs sustainable development projects throughout Polynesia for the World YWCA.

The U.S. spent $20 million to clean up the Bikini Atoll in 1976, but you'll still need to pack more than your bikini before jetting there on your next vacation: One island is so contaminated that it won't be habitable again for 24,000 years.

The bombing never stopped. Despite a moratorium agreed to by other nations in the 1960s, France asserted its right to test nuclear weapons in French Polynesia until 1993. Over the years it has set off some 44 atmospheric and 120 underground explosions on Moruroa Island and Fangataufa Atoll. Many of the Polynesians who worked at the testing center, as well as inhabitants of nearby islands, suffered horrible effects from radiation exposure. Although the current French government has talked about the possibility of resuming testing, activists are hoping that the moratorium will hold.

And in an operation poetically known as "Brilliant Pebbles," the U.S. Air Force continues to test its long range guided missiles by firing them 2,300 miles from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to the Marshall atoll of Kwajalein.

But perhaps the saddest development in the history of tropical island colonialism is a desperate proposal recently submitted by Marshall Islands President Amata Kabua to the U.S. government. Kabua has offered his tiny island nation as a global nuclear waste storage facility in hopes that the sacrifice of one island would yield enough revenue to fund revitalization of the others.

Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary has already said the Clinton administration would not support the proposal. She cites the "Compact of Free Association, which says that the United States may not dispose of or store radioactive materials in the Republic of the Marshall Islands in an amount or manner which would be hazardous to public health or safety."

Yet such noble intentions are not widespread throughout the region. Many South Pacific Islands have been approached by foreign companies anxious to find a place for their toxic waste. Among the Pacific overtures: a proposal by an American oil company to use petroleum-contaminated soil to build a causeway in the Marshall Islands. Another company wanted to store 35,000 barrels of "unspecified waste" on a volcanic island off Tongs. In response to these threats, the South Pacific Forum has drafted a treaty to ban imports of hazardous waste into the region.

And when the Cold War ended and the major powers agreed to incinerate their stores of chemical weapons, where did they go? To Johnston Island, a sunny, U.S.owned atoll 800 miles southwest of Hawaii, where the U.S. has also conducted nuclear rocket tests and stored nuclear waste, H-bombs and nerve gas. The U.S. Army is currently conducting test runs in preparation for removing a huge stockpile of nerve and mustard gas from West Germany and incinerating it on the island. Environmental impact reports released by the Army say that the hazards would be "minimal." A Greenpeace report, however, claims that the Army studies are obsolete and ignore recent scientific evidence that similar incinerators have created such toxins as dioxin.

"If they want to destroy weapons, let them do it in Frankfurt and New York," says Lechte, echoing the view of many Hawaiians and Pacific nation leaders. But, like Lieutenant Cable in South Pacific, the Army is held in thrall by this Pacific atoll's siren song. Far from civilization, it's the perfect little getaway.
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Author:Robbins, Elaine
Date:Apr 1, 1995
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