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Surviving Hiroshima

Keiko Ogura. Photo: Meena Menon  

“Not so many people see these moving pictures. Everything’s completely burnt down. This is the city before the bombing.” On August 6, 1945, Keiko Ogura was eight when the atomic bomb exploded 600 metres above Hiroshima city. Now she is director of the Hiroshima Interpreters for Peace and educates young people and trains them to be peace park guides. She has travelled and met people from diverse backgrounds and tells them stories of survival. Her slideshow for visiting journalists at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum had rare footage, pictures and paintings, all of which depict the horrors of the bombing.

The fall colours in Hiroshima are sometimes dulled by the rain. When the sun comes out, the yellow and russet leaves light up the city. When photographer Jean Mohr’s striking frames were inaugurated at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, it rained.

Visitors went in and out under translucent umbrellas, stood patiently paying homage at the cenotaph surrounded by water. After the bomb exploded in the city, people wanted water and there was not a drop of it around. A stone tablet says ‘Let all the souls here rest in peace for we shall not repeat this evil.’ In the distance before the Aioi bridge, a flame burns, it will burn as long as there are nuclear weapons in this world. As of August 2014, 292,325 names of dead have been recorded. They are entered into registers and kept under the cenotaph.

That morning, her father dissuaded her from going to school. Keiko was a second grade elementary school student, and when the bomb exploded at 8.15 a.m., she was outside her home which was 2.4 km from the hypocenter. She saw a blinding flash and fell unconscious.

“Everyday we went to school, I heard the air raid siren going back, I was so scared. On that day I wanted to go to school but my father had a strange feeling that something might happen. I was unhappy as all my classmates had gone,” she recalls. “I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t stand, there was debris falling on me and all over and I couldn’t hear anything.

There was tranquillity and I heard someone crying, some of the homes had started to burn, there were explosions, glass embedded in the wall. I reached home from the street – some of the torched houses were burning – even people’s clothes.”

“When I went home, it was smashed and some of it blew up, I could see the ceiling and tiles gone and hundreds of pieces of glasses stuck on the wall. My father was lucky. He was between the open glass doors and the pantry and he was alright. My sister and brother were bleeding from the head, but it wasn’t serious. When I stepped out, I saw black rain, what’s this I thought - it was charcoal colour and it very sticky and I touched it,” she narrates.

Years later when Keiko started off as an interpreter for survivors, she started to learn the kind of feelings survivors had. “I climbed the hill and saw the whole city the next day, and it was burning all night. It was a devastated city and you could see buildings burnt right through,” she says. She lived in Ushita but often visited the downtown area with her mother. It had coffee shops, a small theatre. People often had paintings and picture exhibitions, practiced plays and had theatre shows. The Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall - a special place designed by Czech architect Jan Letzel, (now a UNESCO heritage building) was surrounded by wooden houses or buildings and it was a different world.

She couldn’t see the infamous mushroom cloud that enveloped Hiroshima that morning, but people on the island across saw it. She shows a painting of a mushroom cloud. It was by someone out of the city. “It was as if a giant had stepped on the city and pressed it down. A little bit later the fires started, fifty per cent died due to the fire, the heat killed 35 per cent and the radiation the rest. Those who could flee the collapsed buildings ran, many were crushed, crossing the bridges which were intact, some jumped into the water, some ran to the mountains where I was,” she recalls.

“In Ushita where I lived, each home was an air raid shelter. Usually in the mornings there is an air raid warning but on that day (August 6, 1945), there was a warning but no air raid.” Strangely, the night before, Keiko says people couldn’t sleep as they kept going in and out of air raid shelters after the sirens kept blaring. B-29s appeared above Hiroshima accompanied by air raid sirens. “We went home and tried to sleep. All the time we kept wondering why no air raid despite the siren. On August 6 there was one air raid warning. We thought Hiroshima would be skipped. We had heard that Tokyo and Kobe were destroyed, may be God decided to spare our city. That morning people didn’t worry why there was a warning and no raid,” she says.

Some people were completely soaked in black rain and developed health complications and diseases. Some foreigners died. 25,000 including Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Americans, foreign students and around 10 American prisoners. It was one of the reasons Hiroshima was chosen - it had few prisoners at that time in the city, she says.

“After the bombing, everyday someone died, they didn’t have any scars but they died, we were wondering if it was poison gas, we didn’t know then that it was radiation,” she says. Now the survivors “the hibakusha” as they are called, fall into four categories. Keiko says those who helped in cremating bodies also became sick. “Everyday I saw lines at the cemetery, of people to be buried and we wondered who would be next. One of my friend’s who was living out of the city, was exposed to radiation when she came here and fell sick and her younger brother died after a six-hour exposure in Hiroshima.”

Her father worked from that day as a leader of cremation and in a small area and helped cremate several hundred people. There were long lines for cremation. But the most fearful thing for her was that babies were born with deformities, with microcephaly or small heads. Keiko later met a girl in her forties who was like a three-year-old. She wouldn’t say anything and watched TV all day, and could recognise only the faces of movie stars. People were worried about having handicapped children.

Survivors are seemingly okay but get easily tired, didn’t have 100 per cent energy. We used to think survivors are lazy, they catch a cold easily, develop stomach ache, she says. “People are worried about getting married or getting jobs. The first thing I was asked by a young man from Tokyo whether I was from Hiroshima and exposed to radiation. There was denial too. Most people didn’t want to admit to being survivors, “she points out.

Near the hypocenter of the bomb, the Shima surgical hospital and the famous A-bomb dome of the Hiroshima Prefecture still stands today. “My friend, who was a telephone operator, was buried when the military headquarters at Hiroshima Castle collapsed. At 8.15 a.m. when she heard the air raid warning she called NHK,” Keiko says.

During her slideshow presentation, Keiko shows us a very special photograph that of her parents and six siblings. “We all survived so we took a picture to celebrate. Many children died, many were orphaned or maimed. By the end of 1945, the number of dead had risen to 140,000,” she adds. Her brother was behind Hiroshima station working to break down houses and clear fire lanes among the debris. He and others had heard the sound of the airplane - there were three planes - but from one he saw a tiny black thing (the Americans called it Little Boy) was released. As the planes turned, the black dot exploded and they were all thrown to the ground unconscious. “There were people lying on the ground all over and my brother’s classmate was so severely burnt that he took off his shirt and all of them had severe burns as they tried to go home. There were so many dead bodies on the road. He decided to climb up the hill and go another way to avoid the bodies. My brother said the cloud was like ice cream, and he saw the whole city destroyed. It was my brother who came and told us the whole city was burnt,” Keiko says.

The family was puzzled since they hadn’t seen 100 bombs and they couldn’t imagine it was all the work of only one single bomb. People were walking around like ghosts. “I went out to see and I encountered so many people and I saw something hanging. It was not their clothes but their skin. Their faces were swollen they didn’t say anything they were walking to the Shinto shrine near my house. Shrines were nominated as first aid centres,” she tells us.

“There was a bad smell, their hair and flesh were burnt and they were lying down, squatting and suddenly someone grabbed my ankle, and asked for water. Till then everyone was silent but suddenly there was a cry for mizu or water. Some thanked me after I got water for them but to my horror some died. It is said that people shouldn’t be given water when in shock, but I didn’t know that as a little girl. I ran home and got it from the well. I was shocked and I thought there was some poison. My father said you shouldn’t give people water and I kept silent. For a long time I couldn’t tell anyone that I gave water to people and they died. That became my trauma. I had nightmares and I cried. It took me a long time to recover,” she explains.

“My home too was full of people, so messy and damaged, furniture all gone – they was still a shape of a house - it smelt of pus and blood. People used to be covered with maggots, which meant that they were dead. We used to grate cucumber and potato and apply it on burnt skin. There was no medicine then,” she recalls.

When she climbed the hill on August 7, she saw a burning city and lines of smoke spiralling up from cremations at the river bank. People couldn’t find something to burn. By and by people who had fled came back over the years.

Right after the bombing, the question was how to overcome it and not think of revenge, she says. There was nothing to eat, everyday was so hard, everyday people died. “Right after the bomb our thoughts were - how could we overcome it? What can we eat? Nothing was there. Some vegetables and rice. We caught grasshoppers or insects and and ate them after cooking. Everyday was so hard and we were so afraid of dying.”

“Survivors at first hated America, specially the President of the USA for ordering the bombing, but there was guilt too that we couldn’t save our children. There was always regret. Why did I survive many people wondered but later we felt hope when elementary school children visited us and wanted to hear our stories. For the first time, people felt hope that they had survived. There was a feeling that before we all died our stories would be told to the world,” she adds.

Keiko confessed that that people she loved most in the world were teachers and the media. “They conveyed our stories. But once I was on TV and my son’s friend said he didn’t know I was a survivor. The only time I didn’t like the media was when I went to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. in 2003. I was supposed to work as an interpreter. I started to cry. I didn’t want to see the Enola Gay, the B-29 which dropped the bomb. They took pictures of me crying and everyone in Japan saw it,” she says regretfully.

That’s the dilemma of the survivors. Without staying on the story, the world wouldn’t be better but then they will be identified as survivors. Keiko, like other survivors, was afraid of the stigma but she was clear on one thing - “If we think of revenge, the world will be unhappy. This is my message.”

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 1:51:53 PM |

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