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DEATH ATOLL; Families were forced out of their homes in the middle of the night and herded together in the open on tennis courts every time there was a nuclear test..there was a countdown over the loudspeakers before the blast and we just tried to cover up our children as best we could with blankets before this terrible burning light BANEUA TEKABU.

Byline: DENNIS ELLAM on Christmas Island

THIS was the place, Baneua Tekabu says, shielding his eyes against the was where he crouched on the ground, his arms around his trembling young wife and their baby son.

And over in that direction in the sky, rising between the coconut palms, was where he saw the mushroom cloud, swirling and boiling in shades of purple, red and green. This was the place where they had been forced to watch while the door to Hell itself was blown wide open.

"Why did they do it to us?" Baneua still asks. "We were peaceful people. We knew nothing about war or weapons. So why us?"

It's still hard to credit the ruthless action by the British authorities on Christmas Island. Yet 40 years ago families were forced out of their homes in the middle of the night every time there was a nuclear test - human guinea pigs in the big experiment.

Crying children and their parents would cower together on the now disused tennis courts outside the island's main settlement, London.

Next would come the countdown on the loudspeakers... "Nine, eight, seven..." followed by a roaring flash brighter even than the Pacific sun. "Right here was where we sat," says Baneua, 67, a foot scratching a small circle in the dust. "My wife Mwaneia and our little boy Tekabu, clung together so tightly.

"Each time we thought it would be our last time together because each time we thought it was going to be the end of the world."

The scandal of Britain's bomb tests in the Pacific and the suffering they have caused servicemen have been highlighted repeatedly in the Sunday Mirror's campaign to get them compensation. But there were other victims too, victims who until now have not been heard - the 250 islanders who happened to be in the wrong place during these practice runs for a nuclear Armageddon.

Thirty-four tests were carried out around Christmas Island, between 1957 and 1962, and each device was many times more powerful than the the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

First we exploded our bombs then invited in the Americans to do the same. Christmas Island, then a British-owned territory, was at the opposite side of the Earth, easy to violate and easy to forget.

The illnesses and the premature deaths in the years that followed went unreported while medical records were removed and destroyed.

The islanders had no choice but to be unwilling witnesses to the tests. "Many times I saw people being forcibly removed from their homes," says Baneua. "Women and children were pulled out and pushed down the street by the military.

"There was an established routine. Every test took place at 3am and we all had to be in position by 2.30am. They selected the tennis courts, because it was the biggest open area where you could keep everyone penned in.

"The British installed a system of electric lights around the village, one blue light and one red, on top of poles - even though we did not have electricity at home. As long as the lamps were blue we could relax. When they changed to red, that was the signal there was to be a test at 3am.

"No-one should imagine we just sat quietly on the tennis court waiting to watch the show. The atmosphere was terrible. Children were crying, and women screaming, 'No, no!".

"All the time a voice over the loudspeakers was calling the time left.'Ten minutes to detonation; five minutes to detonation', and then the final countdown, from 10 seconds.

"We gathered in groups of 50 and faced inwards, with our heads bent low as that seemed safer.

"The soldiers handed the adults black goggles, but they didn't have sizes small enough for the children. We tried to hide their eyes, and cover them up as best we could. I'd wrap Tekabu in a blanket and tell him not to be afraid, as God would look after us.

"But with every test people got more and more frightened. The red lights would go on, and everyone looked at one another and we wondered if this time we would be blown to pieces. I heard people screaming in the streets, as they were being taken down to the tennis courts. If they were going to die, they wanted to die at home, not waiting in a pen to be killed like animals."

BANEUA says they were never warned that the tests might have any long-term effects. But soon islanders began to talk of the "bomb sickness".

In this small community at least 20 families lost babies. Baneua and Mwaneia were among the first. She had been in the early stages of pregnancy when bomb tests were carried out. Her daughter Tekkaiti - the name means Ray Of Light - lived just two weeks.

"When our little girl was born, we could see she was terribly ill," Baneua says. "Her complexion was dark blue and when the nurse pinched her skin there was no sign of any circulation.

"She was rushed to the military hospital, but we have no idea who examined her. Was she seen by doctors trying to save her or by scientists? We never knew or given any reason why she died. But it was the bomb which killed her, we are sure of that.

"After the testing ended, all of us had to report to the military hospital once a week for medical checks. Again, it was compulsory as if we were just a part of some big plan. We had to go, but never told any of the results."

The young were the first to suffer...children whose eyes had not been covered properly during the flash of the explosion began to develop cataracts.

Teeua Taukaro was only three at the time but can still remember her mother's anguish when she gave birth to a baby who had been blinded in the womb. The little boy only lived for a few months and three more brothers were to die as babies.

"Dad was a local government worker and he was so proud when he was made one of the stewards in charge of people on the tennis courts," Teeua, 44, recalls. "My mother always said something terrible was going on, but he could never accept the British would

sacrifice us like that. Parents with three or more children had an impossible job, trying to keep their eyes covered. Children are curious - if told not to look, they want to look. "I can remember being under blankets, with my hands over my eyes and even like that I could see the outline of my fingers. The flash was so brilliant.

"Then the ground would heave and shake and there was a rush of heat and a great, roaring noise. It would be 10 minutes before we were told to uncover our eyes and look...and the mushroom cloud would be hanging there.IN his home, engineer Terabwena Ubanaba, 48, is writing down a list of names...Roota Mataio, Karaiti Bureiata, Taake Rimon...

It's a roll-call of the dead. In all he counts 22 men and women, who perished in their 40s and 50s in the 1990s in a neighbourhood of fewer than 150. Terabwena is convinced that they were victims of the bomb's fall-out. Many fell ill from various types of cancer. His own father Ubanaba, who was 55, was among them. "Father was a big, strong man, then he developed a brain tumour andwithin 18 months we saw him waste away," he says. "When he got sick, he told me, 'You know this is the bomb that is killing me'. "I have sons of my own and even today I worry about the effects on them.".

In another house, Eddie Corrie, 44, remembers the father who used to rush his children down to the tennis courts in a handcart when the red lights went on while British soldiers handed out bars of English chocolate. His father died in his early 50s five years ago of stomach and liver cancer. Forty years on, Teaka Taake, 65, still weeps for the baby daughter who lived only a week after being born with a rare deformity, in which the skull is hardened and deformed. Inevitably the evidence is all based on memory and anecdotes.

When the British left Christmas Island they made sure all records, before, during and after the test period were destroyed. Historically the island has a low-life expectancy. It's improving but for men the average is 57 - the worst in the Pacific with poor diet and hygiene to blame. But GP Dr Eritane Kamatie says it's still possible to detect the effects of the bomb tests. At any time he has 10 cancer patients on his books, an extraordinary high rate, he says.

"In a typical Western country I'd expect 10 cases per 100,000 people - yet we have a population that is only now 3,500. "We also see mutations in animal life and plants - cats with stunted tails and up to six toes on each paw and coconuttrees with as many as seven heads. It's hardly surprising there is genetic damage to human beings too. "At least 50 people have suffered eye problems since the tests and we flew them to Hawaii for surgery. We do what we can but people are suffering,through no fault of their own."

TODAY there is no evidence of radioactive contamination left behind on Christmas Island based on tests on samples of soil, water and plant life, by the University of Wales' School of Ocean Studies. But scientist David Assinder said: "Nuclear explosions produce a whole range of radioactive elements which have only a short life. "But if they entered the body at the time of the explosion they are capable of releasing radiation and causing damage. It's the same issue veterans have faced - it can't be proven because the evidence is gone."

The MoD says contractors will begin work this year to clean up the festering, rusting mess of bunkers, vehicles and storage tanks left littering the island and a survey team have already visited some of the sites. "But they wore protective moon-suits when they started digging on land where our children run and play," says Dr Kamatie. The island now belongs to the Republic of Kiribati, whose government has pledged to pressure the British to provide a programme of cash payments and investment. Opposition MP Taunga Smith said: "I'm a great admirer of Tony Blair and I know he is a great defender of human rights. I just want him to recognise the suffering and distress that has been caused to people here for years."

One Briton is taking more direct action. Eight years ago John Leuchars, 66, left his home in Manchester and moved here. A former soldier. he was on Christmas Island during the bomb tests. And in all the years afterwards he was wracked by guilt at what his country had done. Now he runs a local library from a hut that used to be the officers' drinking club. "Exploding the bomb here was the most inhumane act we could have committed against an unsuspecting, trusting people. We were barbarians, and I was ashamed of what we did.

"When I asked the islanders what I could give them,they asked for a library." Baneua Tekabu says it's right that people should remember what was done here. It's too late for his wife who died 10 years ago, while still in her 40s. He nursed her through a long illness which left her skin blistered and bleeding. He knows in his heart what caused it. "The British and the Americans just came, exploded their bombs in our faces, and then went away," he says. "I don't even recall anyone saying thank you for what we endured.

We thought we were doing our duty, but were just being used." However, the Ministry of Defence has made it clear that any claim by the islanders for compensation would be contested. Labour MP Llew Smith, who has repeatedly spoken out on behalf of the British test veterans, thinks differently. "Our generation has a responsibility to compensate these islanders," he says. "If we can spend billions on nuclear weapons and war with Iraq, we should do the right thing and look after people whose island our military desecrated in the 1950s with such shocking results."


LEGACY: Children playing in a test area; Children are curious so it was hard to stop them looking at the bomb's blinding flash; TEEUA TAUKARO; It was an inhumane act that we committed against unsuspecting and trusting people; JOHN LEUCHARS RUINS: Dennis Ellam next to a former monitoring station; TESTING GROUND: Remote Christmas Island
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 2, 2003
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