Witnesses of the Bomb: Seven testimonies from the era of nuclear testing in French Polynesia

July 2nd, 1966 is the date when French Polynesia became a “center for experimentation” for the French nuclear weapons program. The nuclear tests in the South Pacific were plotted and carried out over thirty years, premeditated with full awareness of what the consequences could be. The French program differed from the American program in the Marshall Islands, carried out in the 1940s and 50s, in that it was carried out in a well-established colony of France. The Americans were newcomers when they came to the Marshall Islands and imposed their plans for destruction on a defenseless culture. The French nucleocrats came to Polynesia seeking the cooperation of the territorial government which, if not for the temptations of jobs and economic benefits brought by the CEP (Centre d’expérimentation du Pacifique en Polynésie française), could have opposed the nuclear tests may have been able to stop them. The tests did proceed, against the strong objections of the world and all other Pacific Island nations, and they were carried out after the United States and the Soviet Union had recognized the madness of atmospheric and underwater tests and halted them in the early 1960s.
The excerpts that follow are from a work in progress: a translation of the thirty-three testimonies recorded in Witnesses of the Bomb, published in French in 2013 (Témoins de la bombe, Les éditions Univers Polynésiens, 2013). Seven of the testimonies are included in this sneak peak of the project. The French text, with portrait photography of the witnesses, is available online at no cost. The translated testimonies can be re-published under Creative Commons (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND) license. Rights are held by the publishers of the original French document.

Foreword by Bruno Barrillot: To give meaning to things unsaid
The big bang of the bomb has not finished propagating its waves through the Polynesian universe. There isn’t really any scientific discourse, or even a rational discourse throughout these thirty-three testimonies. In effect, how could one be rational when the big bang has taken root in a nest of irrationality and denial of all humanity?
For the exhibition Witnesses of the Bomb, Marie-Hélène Villierme and Arnaud Hudelot have, each with their own art form, captured these Polynesian voices before they fade. In order to not forget.
Marie-Hélène, the photographer, has caught in these thirty-three portraits expressions of indignation in some, resignation in others, the emotions always overlaid with modesty.
Arnaud Hudelot, the director, effaced himself behind the testimonies of the witnesses. The videos reveal long monologues imprinted with memories that have now escaped being lost to time. They tell of unexplained mourning, endured in general indifference, and the fear in which one makes a tentative explanation of a social disruption still so poorly grasped.
This story is one of infinite sadness! Had these words ever been uttered on the nuclear atolls, how they could have had the power to frighten and dissuade. And still there is this bomb which, today, some dare not call by its name: “that thing,” said Jacqueline. Or there are still these diseases with no name which the doctors refrain from qualifying. And there is still the remorse, barely concealed, in which some imagine themselves still guilty for having touched the money that came from the bomb.
There is hope, nonetheless, with this pride in having resisted, with bare hands, one could say, the steamrolling onslaught of a moneyed propaganda machine, with an ardent desire to construct a memory for the generations to come.
Raymond Pia
Raymond Pia started to work at the CEP in 1968, and continued until 1996 when he retired. He was recruited by a sub-contractor, Sodetra, as a welder. Later he worked various trades, but he worked for a long time as a welder on the barges during the time of the aerial tests then during the underground tests. Raymond described his working conditions: “I worked there for the money. Before I signed my contract, they said nothing at all about the job involving risks. They had us sign that we would absolutely never say anything about what we saw. It was a state secret, and if we talked, we risked going to prison. But as for other kinds of risk, no, they indicated absolutely nothing about such problems.
Raymond describes more about what it was like. He wasn’t afraid at the time of a detonation because he and his Polynesian colleagues were not informed about the operations. “So we were there, and we didn’t worry much about what was going to happen. We ignored everything. We built platforms six meters high for the underground tests. The ground shook, and we saw the platform shake too. After thirty seconds it stopped, and we stayed on the platform until our bosses gave us the order to come down.”
“Today I can say that the life of Tahitians has totally changed. Today they have great difficulties because they have left their lands, their islands. They haven’t planted anything for themselves. They ate what was easy and fast, and now they are sick because of it.”
Six years after he retired, he learned he was sick. He had to go to France, to Villejuif, for radiotherapy. Raymond has one great concern: “My testimony is for the generations to come. It is they who will suffer the consequences. Today, it is obvious that there are many illnesses in Polynesia. In the past, these were unheard of. We are in our sixties now, but the youth, their future? It is too late. The damage is done. That’s my testimony.”
Jaroslav Otcenasek
Jaroslav Otcenasek worked from the first days of construction of the CEP installations in Tahiti. “Before that, I was working a little and I earned 20 francs a week. Working at the CEP, you could earn 140 francs per week. So you see the difference. This is what destabilized everything. Everyone gave up fishing, agriculture, raising animals. What you used to earn in three months could now be earned in a week. Everyone gorged on this, but without knowing the dangers that came with the bomb.”
Jaroslav explains the consequences of this CEP gold rush: “Everyone ran to Papeete. In the past we went there once a week or once a month just to buy necessities: flour, sugar, etc. But when the CEP arrived, even people from the outer islands swarmed to Papeete. There was one construction job after another. They left their lands and their islands to crowd into the city. Nowadays, it’s very difficult to get them to go back.”
Awareness of the dangers of the nuclear tests emerged slowly: “It took a certain number of years for us to start seeing our friends dying, or getting sick. It was always those who had worked on Moruroa or Fangataufa. When they came back, they were forbidden to speak about their work. If they talked, they got kicked out right away, and were never re-hired. So we believed the military was trying to hide something. But it took a long, long time. It was taboo to talk about it.” Jaroslav passes severe judgment on the period of the CEP: “For me, it was horrible because there was no benefit afterward. Now there are diseases and we have a troubled nation. I would like to say to young people: get up and fight until the day France recognizes what was done and apologizes for having harmed us. Then I will certainly be able to say I’m proud to be French.”
Régis Gooding
Régis Gooding worked at Moruroa from the age of 16, at the time of the atmospheric tests, to “help his father feed his four brothers and three sisters.” He tells how a kid of 16 could live so far from his family in such a dangerous workplace: a life that was practically a dream, full of unknown pleasures–cinema, water sports…
“It was a great life because we didn’t have to worry about meals. Our laundry was done on the ship. We were there to get on with the work of the atomic bomb, but everything was done for us to make sure we wouldn’t get bored. We were kept busy.”
Régis describes the bomb, as he saw it from the ship he was based on at Moruroa, without forgetting all that was forbidden… “As if you could stop a Polynesian from eating fish!”
Discrimination? “After a detonation, the technicians from the CEA came with their equipment, gas masks, all covered up in white suits, with boots and gloves, while the Polynesians and local workers were in their sandals and shorts, longshoreman’s wear, with nothing special. That was their work outfit.
Régis stayed only one year in Moruroa, but he returned when he became a soldier and was sent there in 1977 for a military mission. He witnessed the land collapsing after an underground detonation, and the tsunami that followed it. “It was after this that the legionnaires built a protective wall and installed security platforms.”
Régis’ father also worked at Moruroa. He was ill, but he was hired anyway by the CEA in Mahina. His eczema got so bad that they told him not to come back to work. He died finally of the cancer that had been called “eczema.” Régis asks with resentment, “Why are such people who worked for the bomb forgotten? He was in Muru, he got skin cancer, but it’s not his fault, so whose fault is it? Is it because he breathed Polynesian air that he got contaminated? Who brought this contamination here?
“I was 16 when I started to work at the sites. I was a warehouseman. At that age, it was an adventure, but I also left in order to send something to my grandmother because my grandfather had just passed away. The hardest time was the evenings and the weekends, because you miss your family at that age. But there everything was done to make sure no one got bored. There were a lot of recreational activities: sailboarding, soccer, motorbikes, cinema, picnics–like living in a chateau or something! A friend of mine was stricken because he had eaten some fish. His skin fell off. He was admitted to the infirmary, then after that no one knew where he went. But among us, we knew how many sick ones there were. I have a lot of friends who have died. In 2002, I came back from the army and I found two or three friends, but I was told the others were all dead.”
John Doom
Former Secretary General of the Maohi Protestant Church
John Doom had his first “experience” of the nuclear tests in 1963 when he was deacon of the French parish in Papeete. Along with Pastor Jean Adnet he had learned about the construction of the CEP, so they published a short article in the parish journal asking for a commodo-incommodo* public inquiry. Result: the pastor was banned from staying in Tahiti for more than six months!
Three years later, on July 2, 1966, John Doom found himself on the island of Mangareva [near the test sites] working as an interpreter for the minister of France d’Outre-mer [French overseas territories]. The history is well known. The Gambier Islands were heavily contaminated by the fallout from the first bomb on Moruroa, after which officials slipped away as fast as possible, leaving the local population uninformed.
Describing these weapons on the national broadcaster [ORTF, Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française], John recalls a report he had to make to the authorities explaining why he had broadcast, after a test, a message warning the inhabitants of the islands. As he was general secretary of the protestant church, John tells of the internal conflicts that existed because officially the church did not have a public position against the tests until 1982, saying then they were not without harm.
But since then, the opposition by the church has been strong and, since 1996, it has been on the side of the victims and has supported Moruroa e tatou.
It must be said that since 1989, John Doom has been Directeur du Bureau Pacifique du Conseil OEcuménique des Eglises à Genève, a strategic post that facilitates the internationalization of the struggle against the French nuclear tests.
“The first nuclear test took place on July 2, 1966. It so happened that I was the only functionary to have been authorized to accompany Minister Billotte, elected officials of T’uamotu and an elected representative of the territory, Mr. Gaston Flosse, who was originally from the Gambier Islands. So we left for Moruroa then headed to Mangareva. On July 2nd, early in the morning, we went up the mountain on Taku to see the mushroom cloud. I had to turn my back and put my hands on my eyes, then wait for the word that it was alright to look. I have to say I was disappointed because we had been told that there would be a beautiful mushroom made up of various colors, but all I saw was a kind of elongated cloud.”
“The next day we had to have a great feast with the inhabitants to celebrate the first detonation. But that night it rained, and the next day they told us we had to leave right away. I learned later that the rain was radioactive, that we had to leave, and that we had to say nothing about it. We left the inhabitants in complete ignorance. And I think that was the first lie of the French government because General Billotte, arriving in Papeete, held a press conference and stated that everything had gone well.”
John Doom is a pillar of the history of the opposition to the nuclear tests in Polynesia, a role which makes him encourage the younger generation to get involved: “The tests are over. That’s a fact, but we will live with the consequences for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It’s not something that’s over and behind us. You, the young generations, you must get involved. It is essential for the future of our people. Look around you. Ask questions to your parents. There is no family in Polynesia that wasn’t affected. Get together and concern yourselves with our future.”
* Commodo/incommodo authorizations define the development and operating conditions deemed necessary to protect the environment and ensure the safety of workers, the public and the neighborhood in general.
Chantal Spitz
Chantal Spitz described her first experiences as a protester against nuclear testing: “When I came back home I was always in trouble because it wasn’t acceptable behavior for the dominant aristo-bourgeoisie.”
After having described the shadowy connivance of a certain segment of Polynesian society with the colonial system, the author sums up the pain of her people: “We have just lived through thirty years so terrifying that I don’t know if we can ever restore ourselves again, and what makes me afraid is that we are going to pass this pain on to our children and grandchildren because they won’t have the tools to journey across this history.”
“Without the active participation of local authorities, the French state could never have done what it did here. At the same time, it is difficult to feel betrayed, betrayed by oneself. We believe we were betrayed by others. Why wouldn’t we? But to have betrayed oneself, that’s harder to face. I believe we can measure the poisons in the environment, eventually. We take measurements, record a certain level of radioactivity, see the dead coral. No problem. But how do we measure the poisons in our minds and in our souls? We can’t measure them, and we can’t even prevent ourselves from transmitting them to our children and grandchildren.”
Chantal Spitz finishes on a note of pride. “But it was a great thing that we marched. It was–I don’t want to say courageous–but we had to do it. We had to dare to do it.”
A message of hope and dignity addressed to the younger generation?
Michel Arakino
Michel Arakino was born on the Reao Atoll and grew up there. Today he lives in Tahiti. Michel described his childhood memories: “It was fun for us, at the age of nine or ten, during the time of the nuclear tests. We went into houses with pressurized air to protect us from the fallout. But after the fallout passed, we went out to big boats off the coast. It was fun because they gave us candies, and they did medical checks on us. There were doctors there tracking everyone and watching over us.”
After his military service in France, Michel was hired by the army to work in the Service Mixte de Contrôle Biologique on Moruroa. “The Foreign Legion gathered soil from around the atoll and made a garden plot. Scientists studied the uptake of radioactivity in this garden. We weren’t protected as we should have been, but according to our supervisors there was no risk. We harvested watermelons, melons, sweet potatoes, cucumbers... The scientists said they were fine, and because they said so, we ate them. We put the leftovers in salads.”
Michel later became a diver, and he was tasked with taking water samples from the surfaces of underground wells. “We measured radioactivity leaking from openings made in the places where cables had been placed for the detonations. I wouldn’t say it was minimal exposure. There was measurable leakage in a zone 500 meters in diameter.”
Michel also related all the pressure put on him from the military and political sphere when he decided to join the citizens’ group Moruroa e tatou.
“From 1981 to 1996 I was a diver at Moruroa. My work consisted of taking biological samples from around the zones and in the zones where the detonations had occurred. At the first meeting of Moruroa e tatou, I came just to listen and tell my bosses what they were saying, but then I was especially struck by Dr. Sue Roff. I was sitting in the front row watching this woman explain the effects of radioactivity. Everything she said concerned me directly. I was the positive control organism in this experiment, and that’s when I realized what I was passing down to my children. That’s when I started asking questions to the authorities, and they quickly became hostile. What should I say? It was like we were no longer friends. The relationship was tarnished because I was asking too many questions about the state of my health.”
Bruno Barrillot and John Doom both passed away in the latter months of 2016.

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