Chernobyl: Death and Destruction

Part I: Fault

It has become almost a cliché amongst travellers to want to visit Chernobyl. Though it is about as far from a conventional tourist destination as one could ever hope to visit, the lure of something so uniquely bleak, not to mention historically significant, is one that covers all bases for – seemingly – all intrepid travellers. Yet those who wish to venture into this dirty speck of post-industrial carnage in the wilderness north of Ukraine are all aware of the same thing; this isn’t grief tourism. The failed power plant and its neighbouring city Pripyat are a dark draw, sure, but this isn’t Auschwitz; most people heading to Chernobyl will have no intention of actively mourning the 31 deaths that occurred on the night of the accident, nor will they plan to feel deep remorse for a flourishing city – and the hundreds of thousands of lives within it – forever ruined by one mistake. But this doesn’t mean that they won’t.

Nope, they, like me, will head the site of this catastrophic event because they want to see something exclusive to Chernobyl. Across the globe, incidents and accidents, both man-made and natural, have brought to an end the habitability of hundreds of towns and cities. However, they all have one thing in common; in the days, weeks, months and years following the event that caused their abandonment, people have returned to either ransack the place, or to clean up. This applies to the vast majority of these cases, but not to Pripyat and Chernobyl; almost immediately after the all-encompassing evacuation of the area surrounding the power plant, a 30km ‘exclusion zone’ was set up. All citizens within this jagged patch of land were told to leave immediately, and to this day, nobody is allowed into the zone without strict authorisation including background checks, passport checks and a veritable ream of insurance forms. Thus, Chernobyl, Pripyat and the exclusion zone are, in an illustrative sense, still stuck in 1986. Only the invasive encroachment of nature has restructured this landscape in the years since then. Sure, tourists come and go, but nothing can be taken away from the Zone, and nothing was ever really salvaged by those who once populated it. Thus, while evidence of decades of decay – crumbling concrete, shattered glass and rusted metal – are now part of the furniture in Pripyat, there really is no timewarp more effective on the planet. The classrooms, gyms and hotels remain untouched. And, for everyone reading this, it will always be that way. The area is still highly contaminated, and due to the astronomical amount of radiation released into the atmosphere, Ukrainian officials currently estimate the area will not be safe for human habitation for another 20,000 years. It is, for all intents and purposes, dead forever.

Perhaps a little bit of scientific background information wouldn’t go amiss here, even though I’m sure all of you will know of the basics of the Chernobyl disaster. In the early hours of the 26th April 1986, the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station, situated in Chernobyl, Ukraine (around 68 miles north of Kiev), underwent an experiment. During regular operation of a nuclear reactor like the four used at Chernobyl, around 6% of the power of the reactor is harnessed from something called ‘decay heat’ (the residual heat from a nuclear fission reaction), which continues after a fission chain reaction has finished. As a result, after a chain reaction has finished, further cooling may be required to bring the decay heat down and prevent damage to the reactor core. But there were flaws in the design of the reactor, and some were deemed unacceptable by the USSR’s already-lax safety standards.

For instance, should there be a sudden power grid failure (something remarkably common during the Soviet Union’s later years), the fission chain reaction would cease due to a lack of power, and a backup generator would kick in to pump coolant into the reactor to counteract the decay heat. However, the operators at the plant were well aware that their current backup generators, which were primitive and ran on diesel, would take over a minute to provide sufficient power to the cooling system in the event of a power failure; easily enough time for catastrophic core damage to take place. The operators thus turned to the plant’s steam turbines, and theorised that, during a power failure, they would release enough residual steam pressure to power the coolant system for around 45 seconds – enough time for the diesel generators to reach max output and then take over.

However, this was merely a theory, and this switch of electrical supply needed to be tested. In a remarkable lack of foresight, the operators of the plant presumed that such a test would run smoothly and assumed that, while it may show that their theory was incorrect, there was no chance of any damage to the reactor. As a result, the director of the plant (who gave authorisation to go ahead with the experiment), astonishingly chose not to consult their plans with either the scientific manager of the plant, nor the designer of the reactor. In the run-up to the experiment, the operators of Chernobyl paid almost no attention to any regular safety protocols, and, assuming the core would not be damaged, disabled various safety features that may have mitigated the effects of the disaster further down the line. Here it gets a little complicated, so I’ll try to create the most abridged version I can.

Basically, the test protocol states that thermal output of the reactor should have been no lower than 700 MW (a low power level for a nuclear reactor) at the start of such an experiment, yet due to the hurried nature of the plant’s preparations, the reactor didn’t respond accordingly to controller input, and dropped to near-total shutdown levels of 30 MW by accident, 5% of the necessary power for the test to go ahead. After workers at the plant took a series of highly unsafe decisions (most of which are not understood due to the deaths of numerous operators), the test started, with the thermal output levels at well below the recommended number. Due to questionable actions taken to counteract the dropping output of the reactor pre-test, once the test began, power skyrocketed, generating ten times the reactor’s normal output. At this point, little could be done to avert disaster, and a steam explosion blew a giant hole through the roof of the building, exposing the reactor to the outside air. Three seconds later, a larger explosion obliterated the reactor’s containment vessel, and sent huge quantities of the reactor core’s mass hurtling into the atmosphere. And the rest is history.

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Part II: Shame

Perhaps part of what makes Chernobyl so fascinating, and so fit for a gloomy narrative, is how almost no good can be salvaged from its story of catastrophe. It was an unprecedented disaster. It permanently ruined over a thousand square miles of pristine forest, rendered vast quantities of surrounding natural life totally sterile, and caused pain and suffering to thousands and thousands of people, both physical and psychological. When the reactor exploded, to the average man and woman living in Ukraine and Belarus, the science didn’t matter, and due to the USSR’s shameful cover-up operations, they would likely never have known anyway. The following night, as an assortment of government scientists attempted to assess the damage and effects, many of them inadvertently exposing themselves to lethal doses of radiation, buses arrived in darkness to ship the 49,000 residents of Pripyat away from the reactor. While most would have been killed within days had they stayed, the government still refused to tell its subjects what was happening. Instead, citizens within the zone were given two hours’ notice to pack up their belongings and get in a bus to somewhere. Nobody knew where.

And this is maybe where my infatuation with Chernobyl as a monument to post-industrial abandonment morphed into something a little more melancholy. As you stand in these people’s abandoned apartments, as you stand in their now-empty swimming pools and walk through their overgrown parks, it’s easy to get a sense of the panic that hung over the city during evacuation. In photos, it looks like a decrepit mess; a mountain of useless shit left behind by people reluctantly moving into another phase of their lives. But when you’re there, stood amongst the toys, furniture and books left behind by these people, it’s an altogether different feeling. It’s decrepit, sure – it’s been sitting there, exposed to the harsh Ukrainian elements for thirty years. But at the time, it wasn’t useless, nor was it unwanted; after the accident, the Soviet government, in a shallow attempt to mitigate panic amongst its subjects, told these people that they would be allowed to return to their homes within a few days or weeks, and resume their lives amongst their friends and families. The USSR’s behaviour on all levels in the wake of the disaster was nothing short of a disaster in itself. From the diplomatic to the personal, their arrogance and lies led to far more suffering and death than was necessary. By withholding vital scientific information from the west, scientists who would have been able to help stop the spread of radioactive material were instead left in the dark to speculate on the nature and scale of the disaster. And by telling innocent citizens they would be able to return to the lives they once knew, before shipping them away forever and obstructing their return, meant tens of thousands of people, from that point onwards, would no longer be able to appreciate their own homes as something tangible or attainable, but as a series of distant memories.

It’s difficult to fully appreciate the scale of the disaster until you’re at the epicentre of it. The explosion killed 31 people, and over 4,000 people have been diagnosed with cancers thought to be linked to the fallout. But to many, including myself, its always been a kind of joke at the expense of the Soviet Union – a kind of ‘look how much these idiots messed up!’ rhetoric aimed at the USSR which, in hindsight, is just about the easiest target going. At that time a failing state with fast-depleting funds fighting a pointless and costly war against Afghanistan, they made a little foray into nuclear energy and ended up poisoning their own people. No matter how fascinating one finds it, for a distance it has always been unnervingly easy to detach yourself from the disaster and either see it as a just a game of numbers, or, depending on your level of jingoism, a sort of dark justice for their atrocities. To many, including myself, it was less a human event than a political event; the cleanup operation practically single-handedly destroyed what was left of the Soviet economy and was a pivotal cause of the collapse of the USSR entirely. But realistically, nobody suffered more than the people, and that is why a tour of the area is so vital.

Pripyat also exists in a paradigm that makes it difficult to fully gauge. On the one hand, it’s a city long-dead; left to fend for itself against time without the maintenance or fondness that comes with human occupation. But on the other hand, it’s only 30 years ago that this town was rendered sterile. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a long time at all. When you look back at the great disasters – or indeed, atrocities – of history, most of them seem so alien or foreign, simply due to the time that has passed since they occurred. As an obvious example, nobody is left to remember the First World War, and we’re running out of people who remember the Second. So the wounds of Chernobyl are relatively fresh. On your way into the Exclusion Zone, you excitedly look forward to standing in cavernous empty swimming pools, and walking down the aisles of dead supermarkets, glimpsing into the past or merely immersing yourself in the alluring, chaotic horrors of what humanity can do to itself, perhaps even salvaging a perceived beauty from the wreckage. But on your way out of Chernobyl, after you’ve trampled through apartment blocks and addressed empty concert halls, you are played a video – silent save for a musical backing – that shows those very same places as they were 30 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to say they seemed ‘full of happiness’ or anything that contrived, but it was oddly disheartening to see them functioning so routinely. It wasn’t some picture-perfect postcard town beset upon by a caricatured evil; it was just a normal city full of ordinary people that was accidentally destroyed. The citizens may have begrudgingly moved on with their lives in other places, but within the confines of the city limits, nothing was gained and everything was lost. Soon after the video, we moved onto a documentary about the disaster. There was footage of soldiers bravely charging toward the reactor, unaware it would lead to their deaths, and clips of the hollow void in the roof of the reactor building. But no moment summed up Pripyat’s hardships more soberingly than a clip of a former resident, stood silently at a window overlooking the deceased city, before blankly stating ‘this has marked my life forever’.

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Part III: Liquidator

I couldn’t let this post drift into the dark without talking about one last thing. Perhaps the most essential and noteworthy thing one can know about the disaster – one that is sadly often forgotten by history – and that is the importance of the Liquidators. In the days following the explosion, and before the Soviet Government had fully assessed the scale of the disaster, almost 500,000 young men – mostly firefighters, soldiers, pilots and engineers – were drafted in to help wage war against the radiation at Chernobyl. These men were known as the Liquidators.

For days, they toiled in vain to put out the fire raging in the reactor, which would stem the release of further radiation into the atmosphere. Yet the government’s callousness and contempt for its own people meant that these men were sent into what was, for them, the unknown – a minefield of radioactive hotspots that could kill a human in days or even hours. They were given almost no protection, and were lied to repeatedly when they questioned the safety of the job. But even once the gravity of the situation became apparent (they were forced to work for only two minutes at a time before switching with another Liquidator), any response would have been futile. Even as their ever-weakening colleagues were shipped off to die agonising deaths in Kiev hospitals, they were forced to stay and slowly kill themselves, under threat of labour camp detention.

Yet this doesn’t reduce what these men gave to the cause. In the context of war or genocide, we mourn those who were killed through forceful means, and so too should we mourn those who were forced to kill themselves through such means. And though the Liquidators were almost certainly sent in by the Soviet government in a heavy-handed and shallow attempt to salvage some pride in a failing state, what they ended up doing for the rest of the world was more remarkable than a hollow face-saving gesture.

After days of an all-encompassing and vaguely-directed cleanup operation, the direct consequences of the disaster became vastly more serious and urgent. For instance, once the top of the reactor had been hastily sealed by the Liquidators, the heat trapped within the building led to the molten core beginning to melt through the floor, toward two large pools of water which were designed to be used as an emergency cooling system. If the core made contact with the pools, the resulting conversion of the water into steam would have led to an explosion many times greater than the one that had caused the original disaster. Once this problem was discovered, the Soviet government hurriedly requested three volunteers to enter the pools and drain the water before the core reached them. In the end, two engineers – Alexei Ananenko and Valeri Bezpalov – accompanied by a third man – Boris Baranov – successfully drained the pools, but due to the proximity of the reactor, it was discovered afterwards that the three men had been aware that they were volunteering for a suicide mission. All three fell ill and died shortly after.

There were hundreds of cases like this during the clean-up. Scores of men perished in an attempt to rectify a mistake that was no fault of their own. And due to the Soviet Union’s unparalleled drilling of nationalism and the importance of honour into its people, it’s easy to remain cynical about these sorts of events. Maybe these men unwaveringly marching towards their own deaths was a result of blind patriotism. Maybe, at a personal level, the idea of dying for one’s country was seen as a glorious exit from this Earth, rather than this being a case of selfless men dying for a cause greater than themselves. And of course we can point to the fact that these men were under threat of being sent to GULAGs if they didn’t comply. But it would be insulting to pin it all on such empty accusations.

I know I personally would have taken time in a labour camp over an inevitable and agonisingly excruciating death. But that’s what makes the story of the Liquidators so moving. Whether it was through force, through sheer will of wanting to honour their country, or through genuine compassion, every shovel-load of granite tumbling off the roof of Reactor 4 might have meant one more life spared, even if it meant that their own would be cut short. They knew it themselves; in the words of one firefighter, Alexander Fedotov, ‘Somebody had to do it’, and who knows what would have happened if they hadn’t.

As mentioned earlier, it’s easy to doubt the claims of the Soviet government. They claimed that, had the reactor reached the cooling pools, the resulting explosion would have destroyed half of Europe, and while this has been disputed by western sources, it leaves a particularly sour taste in the story of the Liquidators. Maybe the explosion would have been massive, maybe it would have been tiny. All we know is that people sacrificed themselves to prevent further damage to the Earth. And this doesn’t merely apply to those who climbed into the tanks, but to all the workers at Chernobyl. The size of the catastrophe they were preventing or cleaning up didn’t matter; they could only take on what was put in front of them by their superiors, and all faced the challenge with a bravery that most could never come close to matching. And for that, every one of them will forever deserve our admiration.

At the end of the tour, as the sun set through the trees on the dead straight, pothole-strewn road out of the Exclusion Zone, our bus slowed to an unexpected stop. By the side of the road was a grey, concrete statue. Our tour guide, who had been rather stoic and unemotional throughout the day, stood in front of the statue and addressed us in a tone tinged with a noticeable and uncharacteristic sadness. Everything she had described throughout the Exclusion Zone had been very matter-of-fact. This was a shop that sold electronics. This was a theatre that opened in 1972. But here at the side of the road, she broke character and let a tiny bit of emotion in, as she told us that the Liquidators, those who had given so much, had received so little back. While the Soviet government had given each of them a medal, that was all they had to show for it. Promises of bonuses were proven false, and any notion that they may be regarded as Soviet heroes was soon forgotten as the disaster’s consequences continued to dominate headlines. The neglected memory of the Liquidators was never even so much as etched onto a plaque.

Many years down the line, once the dust had settled and the Soviet Union had drawn its last breath, a group of Ukrainian emergency service workers and soldiers began an independent funding campaign to create an official memorial to all of the Soviet Liquidators, whether they had died or not. It was funded, designed and built by the emergency service workers and soldiers who would have been Liquidators had they been there ten years earlier. The tour guide handed us this caveat to lessen her criticism of the design. And she was right, it’s not the prettiest memorial. It’s rather crude, a little disproportioned and the colour is not particularly pleasing to the eye. But never has a memorial been more apt – built by ordinary people, independent of the state within which it was designed, just as those who were killed should be remembered independently of the appalling regime under which they died. Because they weren’t sacrificing themselves for their deceptive superiors, they were doing it because it needed to be done. And although it may be just a tiny plaque on a small roadside memorial, after years of being overlooked, the Liquidators finally have their memory etched in gold: ‘… To those who saved the world.’

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Gabe

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Hiroshima: Shadows

20160326_142202There’s something about Hiroshima that is undeniably special. Yet, as many people I’ve met who have passed through here will tell you, it’s not the most exciting city you’re likely to visit in your life. It’s small, quaint and – by Japanese standards – rather quiet. And it is that quietude, that oddly sleepy peacefulness that can be felt across the city, that holds the door open for what makes Hiroshima a place I will never forget.

As everyone is fully aware, Hiroshima was the site of the first atomic bomb to be used on living people, be they military or civilian. At 8:15am on 8th August 1945, the US dropped the A-bomb on this city, destroying 92% of all structures in a 2-mile radius and killing upwards of 140,000 people in one monumental flash of energy. President Truman, 16 hours later, ordered the immediate surrender of the Empire of Japan, an order which was, seemingly, ignored altogether. Three days later, on 9th August, a second bomb was dropped on the town of Nagasaki, killing a further 60,000 people in similar fashion. On August 15th, Japan finally surrendered to the Allied Forces, and WWII was over.

I wish I could talk about the events of 6th August 1945 in a similar fashion to the Hiroshima Peace Museum. That is, with little talk of the war, or who was right and who was wrong. However, the museum and memorial, which I visited yesterday, is one of most truly saddening places I’ve ever set foot. Such was its impact on me, I feel I have to discuss more than just the events that took place. I always thought I had the bombings and their consequences sussed in my head, but I could not have been more wrong. After years of hearing about the bombing as a distant piece of history, it wasn’t until being stood at ground zero, the speck of land where thousands of people died, that I really felt the truest sense of unease and melancholy of my life. I didn’t know what to think.

20160326_141436After my first day in Hiroshima involved going to the majestic Miyajima Island and finally indulging in some real Japanese karaoke, I decided that the full 24 hours of my second day would be devoted to the bomb. Waking up in the morning, I dragged myself to the train station, put my luggage in a locker, and headed for the streetcar. Checking the map revealed that ‘A-Bomb Dome’ was the name of one of the stations in the dead centre of the city, at the end of a bridge over the meeting point of two rivers. If you’ve ever done any research on post-war Hiroshima, you may be aware of the A-Bomb Dome that the station takes its name from; a once-municipal building that is now a concrete, rubble-laden shell. It was almost directly under the fireball when the bomb detonated, and yet, while the building was totally hollowed-out by the blast and portions of it were knocked down, most of the structure inexplicably remained standing. And here, almost 71 years after Little Boy was dropped, it still stands, untouched, as an inadvertent memorial. As I headed towards it, I thought I knew what to expect – a building. And not just any building; a building I’ve seen many photos of. I knew what it looked like, where it was, and the history behind it. Yet, when we approached the bridge and the Dome came into view from behind a row of trees, I got chills like I had never ever felt before. I got off, walked over to the front of the building, and just stayed there, staring into the front doors at the piles of bricks in the lobby. While it may have once been a truly impressive feat of architecture, it now looks on the verge of turning to dust.

For about 20 minutes I just stood in awe of this hideously disfigured structure, and yet at the same time I can’t quite figure out what it was that I found so moving about standing in front of this building. If anything, it doesn’t really retroactively demonstrate the power of the bomb; although it is some sort of bizarre miracle that it remained standing, that doesn’t hide the fact that the bomb, from directly above, couldn’t destroy this simple concrete structure. Yet I know, deep down, that in a fraction of a second, every person standing in this now-gutted coffin of a building on the 8th August 1945 was vaporised in an instant.

In fact, that is perhaps the most disturbing – and in my opinion the most telling – fact regarding the power of the two bombs dropped on Japan. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, over 6,500 are still listed as missing – their bodies were never found. 6,568 civilians, going about their normal morning routine, were, without warning, disintegrated into thin air in the blink of an eye.

One of the things that hit me hardest in the museum was along these lines. The steps of a bank in the centre of the city had been cut from its original structure (or presumably found in the rubble), and placed behind glass in the museum. On the second white marble step was a faded grey-black stain about 2ft across. It was revealed that a man had been sat there when the bomb went off, waiting for the bank to open at 8:30am. And within one second, all that we could look down on through the museum’s glass case was all that he had become – a shadow on the pavement.

And there would have been hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of these all over Hiroshima. People emphatically not partaking in Japan’s wartime aggression against the Allied Forces, who were mere bystanders to the truly horrendous Pacific Theatre, bore the brunt of the US’s quest for revenge. Having studied the bomb in the past, having conflicted views internally about its morality and now actually being stood at the site where the bomb fell, it’s very difficult for me to see it any other way; it really felt like a revenge mission by the Allies. The Japanese had put their soldiers through hell all across the South Pacific with ruthless barbarism and unwillingness to surrender when the war was already lost, and I firmly believe that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets in order to exact vengeance on the Japanese people as a whole.

There will forever be debate about the morality of dropping the bomb on civilians. That goes without saying. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen because up until that point they had been spared any bombing campaigns. Thus, the destructive power of the bomb would be fully showcased. However, I personally feel that this power could have best been demonstrated elsewhere. A port or a military base. Or, perhaps, that the US could have given Japan a last-minute warning; tell them that they have a weapon ready to be used that will destroy an entire city in one go, and at least give the Japanese a chance to evacuate some civilians. But instead, the bomb was dropped with no prior information imparted, and we absolutely obliterated an entire functioning, living, breathing organism of a city in one go.

However, I’m not self-righteous. I think of myself as a realist and I wholeheartedly do not buy into the theory that it was inherently wrong to drop the bomb, and I also like to think I understand the American perspective in the run-up to the event. Rather than being reductionist and naively dismissive by suggesting that the US should be ashamed of themselves, or that they were just thirsty for blood, I feel like if you had been an American citizen during the Second World War, what happened would have been a preferable outcome for three reasons.

First, it ended the war. Simply put, that was just about the number one priority for every nation on Earth at that point, apart from Japan. The second is along similar lines; the invasion of the tiny Japanese island of Okinawa was brutal and bloody enough as it was, yet, had the bomb not been a strong enough deterrent, an Allied land invasion of mainland Japan had already been planned as a backup. This likely would have dragged the war on for many more months and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands on both sides.

The third is a little more controversial. I know people love to be pious and holier-than-thou about this kind of thing, but I can hold my hands up and admit that I know, if I was in America in the 1940s, and I had seen men from my country being dragged off to die at the hands of an enemy of such relentless brutality and aggression, that I would have wanted to put them in their place. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, to use the old cliche, and looking back now perhaps the conduct of the US was less than ideal, but at the time I would’ve wanted word of that bomb to be on the lips of every man, woman and child from Hokkaido to Kyushu. They were a distant, unusually cruel and ruthless enemy and we had to stop them. But that’s war. Of course we would’ve been wrapped up in overwhelming anti-Japanese sentiment at all times, that’s just how it worked. Yet now, in 2016, standing in Hiroshima, as a well-travelled 24 year old who has never experienced war, it’s difficult to feel anything other than sadness.

I’ve put forward as many points as I can to correspond with the points of view of the Americans and the Japanese, but, arguments aside, the very crux of the issue is that we didn’t need to destroy Hiroshima. We needed to win the war, but we didn’t need to erase this city’s history, kill half of its people and leave it stuck in a bubble of cancerous radioactive fallout for decades. We not only obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we punished its future generations, tasked with rebuilding from the ashes, starting from scratch, all while severe health defects caused by the near-lethal dose of radiation many received hung over them like the Sword of Damocles. Because we used a bomb that I think even the US didn’t fully understand the ramifications of, we burned people alive, we disfigured others, we caused a wave of disabled babies to be born, and we handed innocent children slow, painful deaths at the hands of leukaemia. I know it’s easy for me to say, and I’m not pretending to know all the ins and outs of the situation, but there must have been another way.

After finishing the museum, I went and stood at the official memorial, surrounded by flowers as the Japanese flag waved overhead. I looked around and saw two types of people. One, tourists. Selfie-sticks in hand, they would stand with their back to the memorial, camera-phone in the air, and smile. Like they were at the Eiffel Tower, or the zoo. Why would you want a selfie with that memorial? If you want a photo, take a photo, but please show a little more respect than wearing your sunglasses and sticking your tongue out/doing the stupid peace sign with your hands while taking a selfie.

The other set of people were Japanese, and they gave me an image I will never forget. If you stand at the memorial long enough, you’ll see locals passing by. You’ll see workers on their lunch break. You’ll see policemen patrolling. Every single one of them will stop what they’re doing if they pass the memorial, walk up to it, close their eyes and give a long, solemn bow. One group of businessmen heading to a meeting, lanyards around their necks, stopped their laughing and chatting, and spontaneously formed a small queue, so each one could take a moment to remember the dead.

That was a sight I found so noble and moving that I, for some reason, felt it right to join their queue. I got to the front, put my hands by my side, closed my eyes and bowed my head to the cenotaph. I opened my eyes to find one of the businessmen had watched me do this. He smiled, turned to me and bowed. I assume as a sign of respectful gratitude. After I bowed back, he left, I sat on a nearby bench, put my sunglasses on, and just stared out across the city.

Despite the historical spectre of death and destruction still looming large over Hiroshima, the city and the people in it have done something with its infamous legacy that I was very pleased and surprised to discover. Although Japan has been criticised and questioned in recent years for an apparent societal resurgence of nationalistic ideas and historical revisionism, Hiroshima, as a city that unexpectedly became the final frontline of the last great war, has gone vast lengths to distance itself from that aspect of Japanese society. Although there is a lot to say about Japan’s status in the later stages of the war, the city of Hiroshima is simply not interested in talking about it. It may seem slightly questionable to some that the Japanese would not address their numerous proven atrocities across Asia and the Pacific during the war, but once I personally had gotten over that omission, I realised that Hiroshima is also absolutely determined not to see itself as a victim.

The memorial and museum treats the A-bomb like the reset button on a stopwatch. The moment the bomb detonated, the paradigm went back to nought. One part of Hiroshima’s history was over; the bomb had drawn a line underneath it and turned the page. This city isn’t interested in what happened before the bomb, or why it happened, or who was right and wrong. All that concerns them is that it happened, their city was destroyed, and they had to rebuild. It was a period of hardship the likes of which nobody else had ever really known, but, further than simply discussing it as a singular destructive event that happened a long time ago, Hiroshima has dedicated itself to promoting peace.

Across Hiroshima are protesters calling out for an end to conflicts worldwide. They stand on street corners, crudely made signs in hand, shouting indecipherable noise into a megaphone. And there are hundreds of them. They don’t care whether people think their signs look amateur, or whether their points are getting across. They’re just there, taking time out of their lives to call for peace. That’s something I have a tremendous amount of respect for. Instead of wallowing in self-pity and an unspoken lust for revenge, they use their experience as a warning to all others; whether you instigated hostilities or not, whether you truly believe you were fighting for good in this world or not, war will almost certainly come back to haunt you in some way. The systematic killing of hundreds, thousands or millions is never something to be glorified, no matter the method and no matter the cause. Hiroshima is one of only two cities on Earth that have experienced the full destructive force of nuclear weapons and, whether they were the aggressor or not, they don’t want to see it happen to anyone else. Enough pain and suffering was bestowed upon them as civilians to know that there will always be a better solution. While the validity and morality of the bombing as a means of forcing Japan’s hand in surrender will forever be a topic of debate, there is no denying that what happened in Hiroshima was a truly tragic consequence of a long, costly war.

There’s a small stream of water surrounding the cenotaph commemorating the dead. In the water is a collection of small plaques, all with the same message, all in different languages. I’ll leave you with the inscription, as I believe the words engraved into it, which have sat as the centrepiece of Hiroshima since 1952, are genuine, and speak to the dignified, defiant communal spirit of Hiroshima and its people.

“Let all the souls here rest in peace,

For we shall not repeat the evil.

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This monument embodies the hope that Hiroshima, devastated on 6 August 1945 by the world’s first atomic bombing, will stand forever as a city of peace. The stone chamber in the center contains the Register of Deceased A-bomb Victims. The inscription on the front panel offers a prayer for the peaceful repose of victims and a pledge on behalf of all humanity never to repeat the evil of war. It expresses the spirit of Hiroshima – enduring grief, transcending hatred, pursuing harmony and prosperity for all, and yearning for genuine, lasting world peace.”

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Gabe