Maralinga: Contamination of Indigenous Australians

I’ve just visited Woomera and tried to imagine what it must have been like during the British Atomic tests in the 1950′s and 1960′s. It is a flat plain that the British and Australian Governments viewed as empty. For the Indigenous people, they viewed the land as sacred. Interestingly, when I went to the cultural museum at Woomera they had a Rocket Museum and a Social Museum. The latter focussed predominantly on white history and very brief information was available about the traditional custodians, the Kokatha People. However, one small part was about their dreaming which spoke of the women travelling south to a place where they entered the ground. They changed state and made their way into the heavens, they walked across the heavens in the dawn sky and in this way they became the Pleiades star constellation. I found this interesting for when I travelled the world the Pleiades was mentioned in Maori culture, Mayan and Australian indigenous. I am sure it will come up in others as well. There seems to be a star link to these stories. I think it is a fascinating topic to explore. However, at the Museum it is was evident that the indigenous history was not well understood or of interest nor was the nuclear exposure of these people acknowledged. Only when we see the other as ourselves will we change. To learn from the past is to grow, to admit mistakes and to reflect on outcomes is the beginning of wisdom. Truth is the way forward. It is not a failure to admit being wrong, it is the beginning of true courage.

Here is an interview on the Australian ABC with George Negus (reporter) and indigenous guests. The interviews provide insights into what was experienced at Maralinga.

In the fifties and sixties, the British tested nuclear weapons in remote South Australia, among other places. In addition to British scientific and military personnel, thousands of Australians were exposed to radioactive fallout. We meet a group of Aboriginal women who remember the dirt falling from the sky, and the health effects they say began the very next day.

GEORGE NEGUS: In the ’50s and ’60s, in what has to be one of the darkest episodes in this country’s history, the British tested nuclear weapons in, among other places, remote South Australia. But now we know even the Maralinga and Emu Field sites were not remote enough. Back then, as well as British scientific and military personnel, thousands of Australians were exposed to radioactive fallout.

DON MARTIN: It was top secret. “X-200. Secret.” On everything.

KARINA LESTER: We could never understand. We could only just imagine how it was that day in October, 50 years ago.

MITA WATSON: 50 years – time we talk up…what happened.

ABORIGINAL WOMAN, TRANSLATED: The Government never told us and they never told our boss either. They kept it secret and secretly they sneaked in.

DON MARTIN: Didn’t know what we were preparing until about halfway through. As I say, we didn’t even know where we were. ‘Emu Claypan’, or ‘X-200′, or ‘Emu Field’, as they referred to it as. But that’s where we finished up. When the bomb was fired, and you get the sight of every shadow in front of you from the flash, and you turn around and you’re watching the mushroom cloud forming, just like a big, boiling oil-fire. As I say, it’s that technicolour effect inside the bomb that makes it look so magnificent. But you’re not thinking, because it’s so far away, of the blast factor. And there’s no noise. And then suddenly you can see this wall coming towards you. And as it comes towards you, so it picks up more and more dust. And then…the shock hits you.

KARINA LESTER: It sent shivers up and down my spine, just the way Dad described it. It was just horrific. I mean, he describes it like a black mist that rolled through, along the ground, through the tops of the trees, and…silently it moved. It totally confused animals. Animals were so used to dust storms, and the noise that dust storm brings, and stuff like that, but this was a black mist that came silently across the land, where people were effected by it.

DON MARTIN: Emu was dirty. Where they had what they call a ‘Maverick plume’ – that’s one that radiated all the way up to Queensland. Up along that strip now, which is notorious for its cancer. A lot of that cloud was dumped on that Aboriginal community. Those Aboriginals were very, very badly done by. And they would’ve copped the heaviest of that fallout. And according to the members of parliament and the prime minister of the time, “Thank you very much, good job, well done.” World’s happy.

KARINA LESTER: It was not even 24 hours after the test that people started becoming very, very sick.

ABORIGINAL WOMAN, TRANSLATED: When we got up in the morning for work, our eyes were sore and sick. Oh, our eyes. We tried to clean them with a rag.

KARINA LESTER: Soon after Maralinga, Dad lost his sight. And so his whole world changed.

DON MARTIN: As I say, these growths that I had – most disfiguring – but right between the eyes, which finished up affecting that eye. And they cut that out twice. I’ve had cataracts cut out twice. I’ve lost all my teeth. They all went black and fell out. We didn’t think of any risks or any long-term injury. I mean, when you’re in the services, OK, you think of a bloke shooting at you, or a bloke trying to kill you, or something like that, but you don’t think of some invisible bug, or things that you can’t see or hear or smell that’s going to kill you. Maybe kill you 10 years later. And not only that, it kills very painfully too. A lot of blokes died very hard. But nobody would admit there was any link between the bombs and the radiation and the fallout.

ABORIGINAL WOMAN: My son – my only son – he got sick from working in Maralinga. And he was staying there and he was coughing all the time. And spitting blood and everything, you know? Awful, it was. Then he – then he sent back to… He catch the bus that day and took off to Port Augusta. And in the hospital. And he died. He passed away there. And that’s the story I have to tell. ‘Cause I have kept all them stories secret – keep in my heart – and now I let it out.

ALICE COX: My baby. Who I cared about. Second one. Second daughter. My daughter was carrying some hidden sickness inside her, poor thing. I lost two. Poor things. I want to forget my story.

ABORIGINAL WOMAN: My country got spoilt. And the white person, white man, never even say sorry.

DON MARTIN: To the best of my knowledge, you can’t destroy radiation. You can’t clean it up, because if you move it and bury it, you’re only moving it from this place to that place. If they get a dust storm, what’s to say it doesn’t shift from there to there?

KARINA LESTER: We have cattle out there, and people have… Our native animals are grazing off this land. And through this country we know there’s lots of places that are very, very close along where radiation fallout happened. How safe is it? How safe is the food that we eat?

GEORGE NEGUS: What a story – as we said, undoubtedly one of the blackest episodes in this country’s history. If that wasn’t an example of our own technology biting us on the you-know-where, then what is?

Mohandas Gandhi

“Only as high as I reach can I grow, only as far as I seek can I go, only as deep as I look can I see, only as much as I dream can I be.”