Humbled, sad, astounded, angry, heartbroken and ashamed are just a few of the emotions I felt shortly after we arrived in Hiroshima. We piled off our coach from Fukuoka at 6:30am and not being able to check into our apartment until 3pm we put our bags into a storage locker at the station and headed out to explore. As the day was breaking it was eerily quiet with hardly anyone on the streets. Within minutes we came across the A-bomb dome. For those who don't know of it, the skeletal structure is one of the few buildings that survived the first nuclear bomb attack in history, despite the epicentre of the bomb being exactly 600m above it.
Having been preserved as it stood, it's a stark reminder of the horror that took place in the city at 8:15am on the 6th August 1945. In the early morning sunshine, it’s presence was beautifully foreboding. The sight of it both awed and shocked me to the core and we stood for a long time on the Aioi-bashi bridge overlooking it trying to take in the full enormity. We hadn't planned what we doing that day other than finding our apartment, so when we wandered into Peace Memorial Park I suppose I wasn't quite mentally prepared for what we would experience. That being said I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for it.
Peace Memorial Park is strikingly beautiful. It was created as a commemorative facility, making the whole of the Nakajima district at the centre of the attack a symbol of hope for ever-lasting peace and a recreation area for citizens. Within the park are several individual memorials, the two that struck me the most were the Flame of Peace, a fire with purpose to burn until there are no more atomic bombs in the world and the Children’s Peace Monument symbolising all the children that lost their lives in the catastrophic disaster. Many of the immediate victims of the bomb were teenage children who had been mobilised to help demolish buildings in the city that had been damaged by previous fire bombs, in order to create fire lanes.
Thousands of young lives were extinguished on the spot, any remain of many never to be found. Many others were only identified by charred lunch boxes or strips of tattered clothing left at their workstations, found by families searching in vain for them in the aftermath. A few made it back to the burning ruins of their homes or schools with their skin literally melting off their bones, only to die in excruciating pain within days. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum on the edge of the park exhibits many belongings donated by families and recounts story upon story of the circumstances in which their children perished. Walking around the museum is distressing and suffocating as each new exhibition brings a with it a new level of disgust for what happened. It was a truly sobering experience and one that I think I will remember for the rest of my life.
The Memorial Hall that displays the names and photographs of all the A-bomb victims is equally as upsetting. To see the actual faces behind the death toll was crushingly haunting, just so many lives obliterated in such horrific suffering. I began to feel very angry and ashamed at this point knowing that, yes, it was America who dropped the bomb, but as an ally Britain weren’t innocent in that decision. In the blink of an eye 145,000 people were either eliminated from existing or given a death sentence. The recorded first hand survivor stories tell of people laying amongst the fire and rubble crying out for their loved ones, whilst those able to move desperately searched for theirs. It was almost too much to listen to, the pain that people experienced and continue to live through is just unimaginable.
If lucky enough to survive any physical aftereffects the mental torture is ever present. A husband and father having escaped the blast, only because he was in an underground station at the time, scraping up the charred bones of his wife and babies from the ruins of their home, having kissed them goodbye only minutes before as he left for work. For a pregnant woman to feel the relief of her baby girl being born alive only for her to start vomiting blood and run a deadly fever a few days later just as her tiny life was beginning. You just can't reconcile any of it. What’s more, many young survivors were stigmatised by society in the years that followed by being ruled out of marriage into unaffected families for fear of them having deformed or damaged children.
And yet in spite of all of this tragedy there is a remarkable feeling of strength and peace that exudes from the museum and peace park. Instead of resentment and hatred the message of world peace that radiates from Hiroshima, to never repeat such atrocities, is unequivocal and profoundly humbling. After an emotionally draining day we collected our bags and found our way to the apartment we were staying in. It was well within the blast area of the atomic bomb and as I lay in bed that night I couldn't shake the disconcerting feeling that if history repeated itself I wouldn't be waking up in the morning.
I can't even begin to understand the complexity of the politics that lead up to that awful event but I do know one thing - there isn't anywhere on earth that deserves the kind of devastation that unfolded here. As uncomfortable as the experience was, I think understanding the effects of such an atrocity towards our fellow human beings is something every single one of us should be exposed to, in the hope that we each shoulder a responsibility in striving for world peace. And I hope beyond hope that the Flame of Peace doesn’t have to burn forever.