From black mist to poisoned fish

By Metta Spencer | 1996-01-01 12:00:00

Australian aborigine David Carline is seeking safety and health for his people and for all those affected by nuclear tests in the Pacific

When he was a child, David Carline heard the grown ups say of their kinsmen, Oh, he's been in the black mist. The black mist was a cloud that came after the mushroom cloud in the deserts of central Australia. Carline, an aboriginal member of the Kumu people of southwest Queensland, recalls that a few years later his people were talking about jelly babies, blindness, and other diseases. The government denied that there had been any aboriginals out there in the desert when the British bombs were tested in the atmosphere during the late 1950s, but they can deny it no longer. The guards and military people who had been employed in the Maralinga testing region had been gagged by the secrecy act, but now they are dying of leukemias and cancers, so they are speaking up and acknowledging that there were aboriginal people there. One black man who is now blind has also been telling about others who were exposed to radiation.

A Light-Colored Kumu Quaker

Carline is a short, gray-haired, well-spoken Quaker who looks European. He visited Canada in December, and I talked with him at the Friends Meeting House in Toronto. He immediately explained, We don't go by the coloring but by the upbringing. I have never lived in white households or white influences. I am aboriginal--a Kumu.

His anti-nuclear activism arises from the experience of his people. Our lands are still poisoned today, he says. The royal commission came up with a figure of $6 million to clean it up. No one will clean it, so we've lost our lands. And we just don't accept that.

The government of Australia has launched a process of reconciliation between aboriginals and non-aboriginals. When Captain Cook arrived in 1888 there were more than one million aboriginals in Australia. Within a hundred years the population was reduced to 30,000 as a result of genocide. The Europeans distributed smallpox-infected blankets to the aboriginals, put strychnine into their flour, poisoned their watering holes, and organized shooting expeditions to hunt down Tasmanians for sport. The aboriginal people were nearly exterminated. Even today, after a population resurgence, there are only between 250,000 and 300,000 aboriginals, including those with light skins. Until 1967, they did not have citizenship.

However, a few years ago a man from Australia's Torres Strait Islands, which lie between mainland Australia and Papua New Guinea, challenged the law, saying he was the true owner of his island. The court agreed. Now the government has acknowledged that the native people are the rightful owners of their land. And rich land it is: a recent global survey of natural resources reckoned that every Australian is worth $1.5 million because of the continent's wealth in natural resources. Yet aboriginals still die at an average age of 55 and lack the infrastructure necessary to become educated and prosperous. Like many Canadian aboriginals, they wish to retain their own culture.

Carline says, My niece organized the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific in Brisbane 21 years ago. My family has been active ever since. And since aboriginals were the people affected by radiation, we decided there should be black fellows out there in the Pacific to protest against the French bomb.

Other people had the same idea. Peace activist Jo Valentine phoned him one day and said she was seeking funding for some boats to participate in the protests. Carline did not hesitate. He dug into his own savings and went to his Quaker meeting and his aboriginal community to ask for more. Within eight days he had enough--$3500--so he went ahead to Tahiti on September 15, before the others were ready to go.

Sailing To Mururoa

Carline flew to Tahiti (some 600 miles away from the test site) and joined a boat on a two-week trip to approach the exclusion zone. Mururoa is an atoll formed by a volcano. All atolls begin doughnut-shaped, but eventually the sea breaks through and leaves a semicircular island enclosing a patch of ocean that is relatively still. The original Mururoans were moved away about 25 years ago to neighboring atolls or to Papeete. The whole island has been taken over by the French military, some 2000 of whom live there today. At night the island is visible at a great distance, glowing from the lights. Great floating cranes dig holes down into the seabed, and then the bomb is lowered deep into the hole. When the nuclear device explodes, the sea above it in the atoll roils.

Some 130 bombs have been exploded in the region, creating risks of cave-ins. Atolls are only 10 or 15 feet above sea level, says Carline, so you can lose your whole island. Within ten years we're going to have environmental refugees in the Pacific because of global warming, which will affect all those islands. Polynesian land is rich, with lush growth because of the volcanic soil, but there isn't much of it. Fagataufa, a sister atoll to Mururoa, is already subsiding.

The French had considered moving the test site to the Marquesa Islands, which are among the few rock islands in the Pacific. However, they gave up the idea and now promise to stop testing after the present series ends. Then they will sign the Treaty of Rarotonga, the Pacific Nuclear Free Treaty. The United States also will sign it next spring.

Don't Eat The Sharks

Marine life is widely contaminated throughout the southern oceans. In Papeete, Tahiti, many fish in the markets are dangerously poisonous. According to a book by Maria Theresa Danielson and Bent Danielson, Poisoned Reign, the health problems in the Pacific are increasing. Leukemias, cancers, and miscarriages are common. Sharks, in particular, accumulate excessive mercury. Even Australians' pets are dying younger, says Carline, because of the fish in their diet. Still, because the fish look all right, most people continue to eat them--except in the vicinity of Mururoa. No one would touch fish caught within 100 miles of the test site.

The Exclusion Zone

Mururoa is off-limits to visitors, and the warships guarding the area are supposed to intercept intruding vessels and deliver a letter of explanation to them. Anyone who goes into the exclusion zone thereafter is arrested, handcuffed, and taken away for questioning. Carline's craft did not enter the exclusion zone, since their ship was a peace vessel. The protesters had decided against resisting the French if they should try to board.

The warships violated maritime law in the way they treated the peace flotilla. A sailing vessel has right of way over a motor vessel, but the French did not observe this. They never identified themselves properly on the radio, and when they spoke at all, did so in an abrupt manner. They were not supposed to talk to the peace sailors, but would just come and stare at them. At night each warship would turn off all its lights and approach the sailing boats in the dark. It was quite scary, says Carline. You'd just hear the hum of the motors around you. There was no moon and they'd come within 20 feet of you. It's like standing beside a skyscraper and looking up at it. We were afraid they'd run into us, cutting us in half.

When Carline and his crewmates realized that the French warships were not going to deliver any warning, theyfelt indignant. Then they decided to take them letters of protest addressed to the admiral and to Chirac. No one had thought of doing that before.

The first time we started our zodiac to take the letters to them, the radio ran hot! Carline recalls with a laugh. Their lights went on, the hooters were on, the sailors were running around the deck.

They were obviously panicked. We announced that we were a peace vessel and didn't want to set foot on a warship, but we requested, ´Would you please lower your gangways and take the letter from us?' They just didn't know what to do. It was quite funny. We had this little letter and I'd sit in the front of the zodiac, waving it as we approached. They'd flee. But the next day they'd send the jets at us again to harass us.

Many of the peace people tried to reach Mururoa, and some people succeeded. In one case, a Pacific Island man dreamed that he would be protected by the totem of his people, the whale. The next day, as he and his partners paddled toward the atoll in a canoe, whales came alongside. All that could be seen on the radar was the pod of whales, so the people were able to go right onto the atoll. Carline says this story seemed very spiritual to him.

At the end, however, the protesters reached a sad conclusion. They could not block the detonation of the bomb. Moreover, the hurricane season was approaching and they would be unable to sail again until next March. In the meantime, the French would complete their tests. Carline and the other protesters would be unable to maintain a presence in the area. With great disappointment, they turned back to Tahiti, and flew home. They had failed to block the tests, but the French had certainly heard their message.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1996

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1996, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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