Thursday Sep 19, 2019
"'Tonight, something horrible is going to happen,' my father prophesied, shaking with fear," the 82-year-old survivor of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Keiko Ogura, recalled.
Only eight at that time, Keiko easily remembered how her family had fled that night, never to return to their beloved home. Still, they would be considered the luckiest ones.
Memories of that eventful night flashed back in Keiko’s mind as she reclined in her chair. One could read her face and know how her father had been restless over the past two months. And, how, every night, he would insist wife to leave home.
The poor wife had three strong arguments to stay back. "How would my little kids go to school? How could the whole city take shelter in the foothills of the mountains? Nothing had happened to Hiroshima despite repeated air warning. So, why leave?"
During World War 2, nighttime sirens were a routine. Terrified citizens would leave their houses, only to learn that the warning was taken back. Sometime, such alerts were withdrawn as quickly as in half an hour. Eventually, many people stopped paying attention to such crucial warnings.
Yet, in the wee hours of that fateful August night, when Keiko’s father begged the family to leave, her mother reluctantly obeyed. Without any means of transport, the family marched towards the foothills of the mountain. They settled themselves some two kilometres away from the ground zero.
In few hours, the family would witness a disaster that would be mourned by generations to come.
Keiko heard father telling her seemingly unconvinced mother why he feared for the city. Looking at the open sky with disbelief, he was repeatedly saying: "When every major city is air raided, why our bustling Hiroshima is being spared?"
His worst fears, however, were not baseless.
The United States had not touched Hiroshima for its grand designs but for something the world had never witnessed before.
For centuries, the surrounding mountains had protected Hiroshima from mighty invaders. The poor citizens never knew that one day, the mighty rocks will be used to observe the impact of atomic bomb — one that would bring the ambitious Japan to its knees and, at the same time, send strong signal to another arch-enemy Russia.
When the A-bomb exploded on August 6, 1945, Keiko was out playing on that street. It was 8:15AM. The bomb's horrendous impact left her unconscious. Long before she could open eyes, the world around her had changed forever.
Keiko's elder brother was also on a street nearby, gazing at the very plane that had unleashed the bomb. In utter surprise, he saw something being dropped on his beloved land. Keiko could not recall what made her brother escape — but, for some reason, the young boy winked before a thundering flash appeared and was tossed to the ground. Yet, his eyesight remained intact.
Other family members of Keiko were also blessed as none suffered any fatal wound. In few hours, the little girl came to know that not only the neighbourhood around her was destroyed but almost the whole city reduced to rubble.
The bomb was detonated 600 meters above the city of over 300,000 inhabitants, with a force equivalent to 16,000 tons of TNT. It instantly wiped out at least 66,000 citizens instantly and another 69,000 were injured.
Under the mushroom cloud, 70 percent of the city’s infrastructure was flattened, with only a few concrete buildings — like the Bank of Hiroshima — partially standing.
For survivors like Ogura family, life became a living hell. Their eyes couldn’t believe what had happened to their city. She saw many people walking on the streets with peeled skin hanging from their extended arms and naked bodies. People had burns beyond what anyone could imagine.
Those with their bodies on fire were desperate, asking everyone for water. Providing them a drop was like giving them poison but some still gave it to them as it was hard to reject their pleas.
Keiko recalled how some neighbours tried to convince people not to drink water. Then, rain followed and those who were denied opened their mouths to drink the rainwater, dying on the spot.
Some dived in the nearby river to save their burning bodies. Most, however, could not swim. And so, for days to come, the river was full of corpses of the unfortunate ones.
With no hospitals or doctors, the injured would walk for miles to get help. Many succumbed to their injuries before even seeing a messiah. Those who made it to the so-called first-aid shelters were treated with oil by soldiers.
They were in such an agonising pain that, from time to time, many would slit their bodies to feel relieved. The wounds would never heal. For months, people couldn’t have a clue what caused such lesions.
A few names were given to the bomb dropped on the city but even the radio would not name it a nuclear bomb. This uncalled-for censor added to the miseries as more people got exposed to the radiations.
Among other calamities, food shortages made the lives even more miserable. No one was allowed to have rice. The ration supply was barely enough for survival. And, that too after standing in long ques.
A few weeks later, black market appeared. Food and clothes were sold for prices even the middle-class could not afford. Keiko's father sold their priceless belongings to barter food cans. She remembered women would sell their highly expensive kimonos almost for nothing.
By every passing day, the fabric of the high society was shamefully being torn apart. And in few months, people were left with nothing and having a meal everyday became impossible.
A number of widows, orphans, and other girls found no option but to trade their bodies for sex. In a country where local trains still have a ‘women-only' bogies, one can imagine how women in that era would have faced that tragic fate. It wasn’t shocking that it led some to suicide.
Vengeful men — known for their gallantry — were reduced to find any menial work that could earn them some food.
Another city, Nagasaki, was also targeted with an even more powerful plutonium bomb. In no time, Japan had surrendered. And, with that the society, yet again, had hit rock bottom.
Sharing her war-time experience, Keiko recalled that women of her city faced one dilemma after another in the coming months.
She observed that no one would marry a Hiroshima girl. People feared that either such girls would not be able to conceive or give birth to a stillborn child. When a generation of deformed children appeared, it became a taboo to even think of marrying any girl from the doomed city.
Witnessing discrimination, the young ladies started hiding their identities. Those who could afford migrated to the nearby cities. Others pretended that their families had come to Hiroshima only after the war had ended.
Neighbours chose not to disclose how many of their relatives they had lost. They would pretend as their dead ones were actually missing ones and would ask friends and relatives if they had any news about them.
Childhood friends wouldn’t disclose to each other what they had gone through. It took 70 long years for one of Keiko's elementary school classmates to pluck up courage and show her scars.
"My lovely best friend had a huge mark here," a stunned Keiko explained by putting her hand between her left shoulder and neck. She felt pity for what war does to a noble society and how distrust turns friends into complete strangers.
The survivor was lucky in many respects.
The kind-hearted interpreter Kaoru, who knew her background had happily married her; however, he died in 1979. Then she took it upon herself to propagate awareness about peace. Her dream is to create a world free of nuclear weapons.
In the last four decades, Keiko has knocked every possible door. She has given lectures at various universities including Harvard. The A-bomb survivor has also met European Council President Donald Tusk and shared her experience at the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI).
I met Keiko at the Peace Memorial. Not knowing that my question would hit a painful spot, I asked her: "Are you concerned about the clouds of war looming between two nuclear-armed India and Pakistan?"
Her eyes widened with shock and pinkish face paled. I could notice that the horrendous scenes of Hiroshima bomb attack and its terrible aftermath were being replayed in her mind.
With a jerk, she stood up, looked straight into my eyes, and asked: "Can’t the world take any lessons from us?"
Then, with thundering voice, she said: "The world must act together to stop another disaster."
With that, Keiko picked up a portrait that showed her standing next to a river of fire. Putting her arm around my shoulder, she came out of the hall and looked at the A-bomb Dome.
As she pointed at the very symbolic building, I could hear her saying "Never in my life!"