The French state seeks to make us forget the nuclear tests in Polynesia

by Delaunay Matthieu

A translation of

« L’État français cherche à nous faire oublier les essais nucléaires en Polynésie » par Delaunay Matthieu, le blog de Delaunay Matthieu, October 17, 2019

Translated by Dennis Riches

After a remarkable intervention at the United Nations on October 8, 2019, Hinamoeura Cross gives her testimony. She is one of the many victims of the 193 nuclear tests carried out by France between 1960 and 1996 in so-called French Polynesia.

hinamoeura cross
Hinamoeura Cross with, left to right, Stanley Cross and Philippe Neuffer lawyers from  Papeete, and David Koubbi, lawyer from from Paris, just before their joint presentation at the United Nations.

Could you introduce yourself in a few words?

I celebrated my 31st birthday a month ago. I am the mother of an eight-year-old boy and we live in the commune of Mataiea in Tahiti. I grew up in a family with parents with a certain status since my father is a lawyer and my mother is a pro-independence politician. So I grew up with these models. I went to law school, but I didn’t see myself taking over my father’s law firm. As I have always loved cooking, I found myself at the head of a catering company made up of a strong team, which allows me to have time to work on other causes. I have just started a real estate company, and I have many other projects in mind, but my 30 years marked the beginning of my commitment to the legacy of the nuclear tests which victimized my people. On July 2, 2019, the day of commemoration of the first nuclear test in 1960, I decided to reveal my illness and on October 8, I testified before the 4th United Nations Commission. Since then, I have been driven by encouragement and support and I want to defend this cause. I feel like this is going to be the fight of my life.

What disease do you suffer from?

Chronic myelogenous leukemia, a blood cancer that affects the bone marrow.* I live thinking that I am well, and I don’t think about it much. My daily life was very difficult at first, especially in the first years: taking blood every week, taking bone marrow monthly. These punctures are the worst thing about this disease. Without anesthesia, a huge needle of ten centimeters is pushed into your chest. It’s more painful than childbirth. I was already an adult, so I feel much more for the thousands of Polynesian children who are affected by leukemia and who undergo the same tests. Right now, I take a chemotherapy pill every day that helps to put the disease to sleep, but since I am very positive in nature, I believe that this is what makes me strong and allows me to live fully every day. I am still in remission, but I must take my treatment for an indefinite period.

Translator’s note: Is it possible to confirm that Ms. Cross is a victim of the nuclear tests? Radiation leaves no calling card after it causes damage. She was born after almost all of the tests had occurred, and the atmospheric tests had stopped long before she was born. If she is a victim, one must speculate about whether she inherited damaged genes from her parents or whether she was exposed to residual radionuclides still in the environment. The citation below notes the low incidence rate among young adults and the fact that persons exposed to radiation from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan had a fifty-fold increase the incidence of chronic myelogenous leukemia.

“CML [chronic myelogenous leukemia] represents approximately 14% of all leukemias and accounts for up to 20% of all cases of adult leukemia in Western societies. The median age of onset of CML is 65 years and the incidence increases with age. In the majority of patients with CML a clear etiology is absent and therefore the disease is neither preventable nor inherited. However, it is well documented that ionizing radiation is leukemogenic and CML has been observed in individuals exposed to the radiation emitted by the atomic bomb explosions in Japan in 1945. In these patients, the incidence of CML was 50-fold higher than that of non-exposed subjects and it peaked approximately 10 years after the explosion, although patients younger than 15 years of age developed CML earlier than those 30 years of age or older. Nonetheless, in most cases of CML no antecedent radiation exposure is discernible.”

– D. Provan, and J.G. Gribben, “Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia.” In Molecular Hematology, Third Edition (Singapore: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 76.

I was twenty-five years old when this leukemia was detected. What was quite special for me was that I was already familiar with radio-induced diseases, since my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt and sister are all affected by thyroid illnesses. The thyroid is an endocrine gland that regulates many hormonal systems, and is highly impacted by radioactivity. Since I was fifteen, I had to go for an annual ultrasound to check that I had nothing wrong. Until then, I felt lucky, and then at twenty-five, I was diagnosed with this leukemia.Why did you decide to take on this fight?

I was twenty-five years old when this leukemia was detected. What was quite special for me was that I was already familiar with radio-induced diseases, since my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt and sister are all affected by thyroid illnesses. The thyroid is an endocrine gland that regulates many hormonal systems, and is highly impacted by radioactivity. Since I was fifteen, I had to go for an annual ultrasound to check that I had nothing wrong. Until then, I felt lucky, and then at twenty-five, I was diagnosed with this leukemia.

What were the reactions of people around you?

From the beginning, it was clear that I was not going to shout it from the rooftops. Polynesians always have this shame, this embarrassment that makes them refuse to stand out. For six years, I told only my loved ones. What helped me hold on was that the people I was around didn’t know I was sick and they treated me like a normal person.

Did you make the connection quickly with the nuclear tests?

In a corner of my mind, the connection was made, but without admitting it because we are not a civilization that wants to fight, to wake up… Above all, my education played a role: I went to schools in Polynesia, which follow French National Education, and therefore did not grow up learning this historical fact. Nuclear testing was not talked about in schools or around us. And then last year, Mr. Oscar Temaru, President of Tavini huira-atira (The Polynesian Independence Political Party), filed a claim with the International Criminal Court (ICC) against France for crimes against humanity following its 193 nuclear tests. He has been fighting and seeking compensation for forty years, but has not been heard as much as he should be. That’s when I started to do research and get interested in everything that happened.

What happened then?

Between 1960 and 1996, there were 193 nuclear tests in so-called French Polynesia. I didn’t know how many there were, or that some were 150 times more powerful than Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At school, I studied the Second World War and the bombs dropped on Japan. I knew about the extreme cruelty, but I and the vast majority of the population have been kept in the dark about the facts of the nuclear tests in our homeland. At the time of the ICC complaint, I thought that it was not normal, that if we continued like this, this scandal would be forgotten. I believe that this is what the French state wants and seeks to do: to make us forget this reality.

What is it?

Entire Polynesian families are decimated by these diseases. People I met following my testimony confessed to losing their parents, brothers, sisters, children, nephews and nieces, and all this is hidden! When some bombs exploded, there was a cloud of rain that followed. The health message from the French authorities was: “When the rain comes, take shelter under your banana trees and your houses, but as soon as the rain stops, it’s alright for you to go back to your normal lives.” Except we’re talking about atolls, and most of them are without mountains and a source of water! The water these people drank was rainwater! Water for children’s bottles was collected in cisterns, so it was contaminated water. It’s absurd. These islands should have been evacuated.

Did the French state force Polynesians to suffer in silence?

No, I would say it is primarily cultural. We are a nice people and the first thing people can notice is our welcome. The Maohi is good-natured and sees no evil anywhere. It’s not easy to say, but we Polynesians have been so ignorant! France came in 1960 and told us that they were going to detonate atomic bombs in our homeland, and what did we do? We danced for them to the sound of the toere and crowned them with flowers and kissed them. I think they chose us well. We’re kind and good, but ignorant.

Do you consider yourself responsible for this ignorance?

President De Gaulle claimed the tests were clean, vowing that Polynesians would not be affected. He sold us the nuclear tests as a new step forward for us, which would bring new schools, roads and economic development. At the time, we already knew that nuclear testing was something particularly cruel, but I think our geographical location cut us off from the world and information. In the 1960s, a Tahitian, Pouvana’a a Oopa Tetuaapua, who did not want nuclear tests to take place in Polynesia, stood up against these projects. He was arrested, convicted and imprisoned in France. They silenced people so they could continue what they had planned.

Today, what is France’s position on this issue?

It recognized twenty-one radio-induced diseases that could result from nuclear testing. This figure is based on their research, but I know that Japan and the United States recognize more of them. That is another thing we are going to have to work on: this list seems much less complete than what we have come to believe is realistic. The unfortunate thing is that we do not have access to any studies. As I speak, I cannot tell you how many Polynesians are affected by radio-induced diseases or how many have died. We are told that there are no studies, but it is not as if we haven’t asked in the past for studies to be done. The first thing I want to do is gather statistics. So I make an appeal to my people: get in touch with me to give me your figures: dead, current victims, etc.

So this has become your fight?

The fight started in New York, and I’ve been getting thousands of messages of support ever since. It’s time to prepare for the rest. If I hadn’t been affected by this disease, I wouldn’t have felt involved, and I would say like most people: “The damage is done, so why wake up? What for? Let’s turn the page.” I am a young activist, and as much as I can, I want to make ourselves heard and lead the way, to liberate speech so that people are no longer ashamed or afraid to speak. Raising awareness seems to me to be important in awakening consciences and obtaining recognition and reparation.

How much would it be?

Since we cannot undo the fact of nuclear testing, because our oceans are polluted, it is to the thousands of patients that we must turn. What weighs heavily on Polynesians is the cost of these treatments that must be borne collectively. In my case, this represents 250,000 euros of expenditure at the level of the CPS, our local social welfare fund. It is not funded by the social security system of France, since we have our own system. It is therefore we Polynesians who bear the cost of all these diseases, including radio-induced diseases. It’s truly outrageous.

The history of the nuclear tests is a basic cause of the separatists. Do you think this explains the contempt or ignorance of the French state towards the sick?

The amounts I have just quoted are so exorbitant that that may be a reason. With regard to the independence cause, I recall that I went to the United Nations as a member of civil society who was an indirect victim. It is regrettable that in Polynesia this fight is confined to Tavini, the pro-independence party, and the Maohi Protestant Church, when it should bring all of us together. Today, many of those born after 1996 are unaware that there were nuclear tests in Polynesia. That’s why we need to remember and educate. If we have so many sick people, it is not just because of bad fortune. It is time for France to recognize that its nuclear tests have had serious health consequences.

Is it frightening to make such an allegation?

In a way, the French state is pressuring people to stay silent. I have friends who work in the public service, in National Education, who say, ”I support you, but I am not going to share your fight on social media. I support you discreetly because I am afraid of reprisals if I talk too much.”

But are you afraid?

Is there any reason I should be afraid? I have received no threats, no insults. This is just the beginning. I want to carry out other actions and bring a lot of people together. With this intervention at the United Nations, we have passed the point of no return. This is the first time that a victim, a sick person, has spoken there. I talked to people. The door is open and it is up to me to unite people and continue so that this energy is maintained and that we don’t carry on as if nothing happened. The work has begun!

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* Translator’s note: In French Ms. Cross is reported to have said “moelle épinière” which means “spinal cord.” Descriptions of the disease make no mention of involvement of the spinal cord. She probably said or intended to say “moelle osseuse,” meaning “bone marrow.”

See this video of the previous generation’s leading spokesperson for the victims of nuclear testing in French Polynesia: Bruno Barrillot: Witnesses of the Bomb (six minutes, French and Engish subtitles).