With the United Nations set to re-evaluate the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty this week, thousands of peace activists from more than thirty countries turned up in New York City on May 1 to press their case for global nuclear disarmament. Among the tens of thousands, the most compelling were the Japanese survivors of the US nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
"I got a big shock, and then I lost almost all of my memory," recalled Satoru Konishi, who was 16 when the United States destroyed his home city of Hiroshima with a uranium bomb. "I remember that a cloud was rising up to the heavens," he said slowly, "and in the night, the city was burning. On the second day I went to the city. I saw this face and he said, 'Give me water.' I don't even know what I did." Another survivor explained that he was just one kilometer from the center of the explosion in Hiroshima, while dozens of others, most now in their 70s and 80s, said simply, "Never again."
The May 1 event, co-sponsored by United for Peace and Justice and Abolition Now, included a march through Midtown Manhattan and a rally in Central Park. Its theme, "No Nukes, No Wars," encompassed a number of demands--including US military withdrawal from Iraq--but the broader aim of nuclear disarmament took center stage.
"They're all very pressing, and they all need to be addressed," said John Donabedian, a 40-year-old activist from Detroit, referring to the various challenges confronting the peace movement. "But I think right now, nuclear proliferation is the most deadly of all these monsters."
The timing of Sunday's event, on the eve of the NPT conference, undoubtedly bolstered turnout and passion, especially among international activists. In fact, organizers with Abolition Now said more than 1,000 people from Japan alone joined in the demonstration. Many of them plan to visit the UN as well in hopes of encouraging the world body to protect and strengthen its nuclear pact.
Under the NPT, non-nuclear nations have agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons, while nuclear powers, including the United States, have committed to eliminating their own stockpiles. But as Sophie LeFeez, a 27-year-old activist from France, noted pointedly, "The problem is that there's a double standard."
Indeed, as the United States assails the nuclear ambitions of Iran, a signatory of the treaty, and North Korea, which backed out two years ago, its military maintains more than 10,000 nuclear warheads in its arsenal and spends roughly $40 billion a year on nuclear development. "They say to non-nuclear countries, 'You must not proliferate,' " LeFeez continued, speaking of the nuclear powers. "But they don't dissolve their own nuclear programs."
That frustration toward the United States and its fellow nuclear powers (France included) was certainly on display during the march through Manhattan--in chants and songs as well as dances and theatrical performances. Naturally, the demonstrators carried thousands of posters and banners as well, some directed at the Bush Administration and others at the larger issue at hand. One said plainly, "No More Hiroshimas."
In Central Park, the demonstrators formed a human peace sign and faced a stage on the west side of a large open field. Tadatoshi Akiba, the current mayor of Hiroshima, was one of several speakers who captivated the crowd. "As you know, the United for Peace and Justice marshals are responsible for maintaining law and order at this event," he said. "Since there are so many of you here, I believe it is quite dangerous. Therefore, I propose the following: We should find the eight largest and richest marshals and give each one of them a state-of-the-art machine gun. We should also give them plenty of hand grenades and several canisters of poison gas. That way, if there are any troublemakers, any rogues in the park, they can quickly take care of them. Do you like my idea? Does it make you feel safer that a few marshals have the capability to kill us all in a few minutes?"
Screams of disapproval echoed through the park as Akiba continued. "That's right," he said, affirming the crowd's response. "And that's why we are here. Because that is exactly the situation we are all in every day."
Of course, for many, that reality goes largely unnoticed. But for the aging survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it most certainly does not. So here's to their journey to New York on behalf of nuclear disarmament--and the hope that the phrase "Never again" maintains its resonance.