How I set sail from Tahiti to stop the bomb

How I set sail from Tahiti to stop the bomb

by Gillian Murphy

Greenpeace; Tahiti, August 23, 1995
THE DECK HANDS ARE HAULING IN THE MOORING LINES. I’m standing on the Rainbow Warrior II waving goodbye to a crowd of well-wishers and press people. Small boats zip back and forth in the harbor, crammed with photographers trying to get the best picture of this legendary ship before we leave for a three-day, 600-mile trip to the Moruroa area where the French government has announced it will “test” (read: explode) nine nuclear devices.

On deck, someone blows a conch shell; the low moan sounds reassuring, protective. The ship has been given many symbols of life in the South Pacific to protect her: spiny fronds of palm are lashed to the ship’s railings; coconuts, bananas, and taro, nestled in baskets woven of fresh fronds, are piled on deck.

More than 1,500 people marched to protest the French nuclear explosions in Rarotonga, Cook Island, Tahiti, June 1995.

The 130 islands and atolls (a coral reef surrounding a lagoon), now French Polynesia, were called Te Ao Maohi before the French moved in the mid-1800s. Since 1966, the French have been testing nuclear weapons on the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa. They used to test in Algeria, but the Algerians kicked them out – they’d had enough of French colonialism. Also, the French found that the fallout from atmospheric tests in the Sahara had a nasty habit of drifting across the Mediterranean towards the Motherland. Can’t have that.

I flew into Tahiti at two in the morning a couple of days ago. It’s my first time below the equator, my first season of travel abroad. It’s winter here and almost chilly. When I arrived at the airport, we were greeted by a band wearing matching flowered shirts and playing miniature versions of familiar instruments. Very South Pacific, with a little Love Boat and Fantasy Island tossed in.

And yet this tropical island paradise and its people will suffer grave damage if the nuclear tests are allowed to proceed. A few years down the line, they will miscarry their babies or feel sick themselves. These things are all too real to me. “If not me, then who?” I wrote my father, who was freaking out about the danger. I told him that I had thought about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about radiation burns and deaths and kids being born with genetic defects. By myself I don’t feel like I can do a lot to prevent it from happening again. So I decided to help Greenpeace speak up loud and clear for all those people who would like to be out here and can’t be. He wrote back that he was proud of me, but still terribly worried for his baby. Guess I’ll always be that to him.

August 24
I’VE BEEN WORKING HARD SINCE ABOUT 15 MINUTES AFTER we left the dock. We had a meeting with the 10 journalists on board, set out the ground rules for them: no publishing our plans before they happen; wash your dishes after dinner; here’s your bunk; here’s Gillie, the radio operator – she’ll be making all your phone calls for you. I was immediately besieged.

I’m assisting Tim, the radio operator. We were on a mission on the Moby Dick in the Great Lakes together when he got sent to Tahiti and requested me as his assistant. Now he’s on the radio with some boats arriving from New Zealand for the flotilla that’ll be converging on Moruroa. About a dozen private yachts have arrived, with people who want to help prevent the tests – or bear witness to them. There’s also a Greenpeace charter that’s leaving from San Francisco and the MV Greenpeace, our big ship, is on her way carrying provisions to sustain the flotilla for a few months. She has a sailmaker on board, food, water, fuel, Tiveety (our helicopter), and all kinds of gear for the campaign.

I’m meeting the crew, one by one. We are 5 women and 14 men, about half of us from New Zealand and Australia. All the women except me are from the South Pacific. Stephanie is the campaigner. She runs the whole show. All day she has been running around and on the phone to reporters. She seems made out of energy; I know she was awake half the night and then up in the morning before me.

Sarah is the cook, and my bunkmate. We actually have a cabin to ourselves on the main deck. A big step up from Moby where everyone sleeps in one room in little cubbyholes.

There’s Claudia, who seems to be half campaigner and half media rep; and Millie, the ship’s doctor; and Kate, second cook. I am pretty pleased that there are this many women on board, but Sarah is telling me that there are always so many more men than women, and women are usually the cooks and deckhands, rarely officers or engineers. Since this is my first time at sea, I don’t know if this is due to some fault of Greenpeace’s or because there are so few women who have marine officer’s and engineer’s licenses.

On the Great Lakes tour we had tried to recruit an all-female crew, but until just before I left for here we were just two women – the captain and myself – and four men. It was great having people ask one of the men if he was the captain, and watching their expressions when we pointed out Margreet.

August 25
TODAY I WAS SITTING ON THE FLOOR OF THE RADIO room, solder gun in one hand, phone in the other, when someone came in with a life jacket and told me to hurry up and get in the boat. So I ran out, leaving poor sleepless Tim with the journalists. I do love a boat ride.

‘Course, it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. Our five 10-foot soft-shell inflatable boats tore around at full speed making tight inside and outside turns, practicing chasing and being chased, rehearsing slamming to a stop and letting any chasing ships fly past.

We put the boats back on board with the crane, flushed the engines, and set about padding the sides of the boats so that next time it wouldn’t be so painful. Someone showed me how to glue padding to the floorboards and I put in handles so I wouldn’t fly out. I don’t know what it’ll be like in action, but I’m going to be ready.

August 26
WE ARRIVED AT THE 12-MILE ZONE OUTSIDE MORUROA today, and we have picked up a little friend: a French frigate that paces back and forth about a mile away. It has called a couple of times to ask our intentions and to tell us that we are in violation of French law if we get any closer than 12 miles to Moruroa.

The flotilla is drawing nearer. Tim sends their positions to someone via e-mail who is putting them on a map so that people can track progress on the Internet.

Bit by bit the action scenario is pulling together. Early in the morning of the day we expect the first test, we will launch our inflatables from the Rainbow Warrior, which will then attempt to sail in herself. A few people will go on the atoll and try to hide; the rest of us will float within the lagoon in our inflatables, trying to stay free as long as we can. We expect that the MV Greenpeace will send in divers underneath the platform that drills the shaft for the bomb and loads it. Our hope is that the heart of French president Chirac retains a shred of humanity and he won’t allow a test when the area is occupied by nonviolent activists.

After dinner we had another meeting in the mess room about the health risks of being near a nuclear test site. Stan, the action coordinator, showed us diagrams of the test site, the drilling rigs, and gave us reports on radioactivity levels.

For each underground test, of which there have been about 60 since the French stopped atmospheric testing in 1974, they drill a shaft from 500 to 1,200 meters deep into the coral. The bomb is then loaded into the shaft and detonated. After the bomb goes off, they drill a second shaft nearby to get radioactive samples so they can get a better idea of the test’s yield. There have been lots of accidents. Once a bomb got stuck halfway down the shaft and they had to explode it there. And the coral is riddled with holes.

This time we expect there to be one big test of a 120-kiloton bomb and six to eight tests of 20-kiloton bombs, each a little bigger than the bomb we dropped on Hiroshima. To place the bombs, they drill through coral and soft rock. The approximately 13-mile-long coral has fractured in a few places, and we think more tests could fracture it further, perhaps causing a tidal wave or some other major disaster. One documented fracture is about 2 feet wide and a mile long. Fractured coral or rock is not good for containing radioactivity. Some scientists say that it will only be held in place for about 6 years. The area will remain radioactive for generations.

Our group will wear badges and rings to measure our exposure. We’ll have to send them to a lab.

The Polynesian workers used to clean up radioactive waste with no protective gear. Lessons in morality, anyone?

August 28
THE MV GREENPEACE ARRIVED TODAY. SUCH A HUGE ship. She’s loaded to the gills with gear for the flotilla. Again, I’m getting that great feeling that we can do anything.

I’ve learned so much about activism, about people, about ships, and about myself in the two years I’ve been working for Greenpeace. I feel like I have a purpose, that I’m in the right place, that I believe fully that we are doing the right thing by being here. The issue is clear. There should be no nuclear bombs tested. By being here, we have a good chance to stop them. The public outcry alone ought to be enough. If all this is not enough, what would be?

September 2
YESTERDAY WAS THE DAY. IT LOOKED LIKE THE FIRST TEST would be September 1, so we went for it. At about 4:30 A.M., two inflatables launched and headed straight east. Afraid and excited, Tod and I left in a 10-foot boat for 16 miles of open sea into a nuclear test site.

We were with the last two inflatables to leave. The swells were really high, at least 10 feet tall. We rode up the swells, then fell off the other side. It was painful to ride at full speed for two-and-a-half hours. Somehow Tod managed to keep us on track, heading straight for the western side of Moruroa. We arrived at the atoll as the sun rose, and circled north looking for an opening in the reef. We spotted a whale not 20 meters away from the boat and there found a low break in the coral, an entrance to the lagoon. I think the whale was there just to help us. It was so close to the boat, in the right place at the right time.

So we went into the lagoon and set off an orange smoke bomb so Tiueety, our helicopter launched from the MV GP, could spot us and film us as proof that we were there. Then we took off toward the middle of the lagoon. The water was as clear and as blue as you could hope for. We could see coral. On land was a huge concrete bunker where the above-ground tests used to happen. Now it has solar panels on the roof. That side of the lagoon is severely contaminated. The French slapped a coat of tar on it.

We spotted an inflatable in the water but there was no one in it; it was hung up on the reef. We thought we might be able to take the boat and have another one zipping around, but the pontoons were slashed, the engine smashed, the gas lines cut, and the gas gone. I hoped her crew was a little better off. I had one of those cold hard realizations of what we were up against.

We left the dead boat and headed toward a tower in the middle of the lagoon, thinking it would be the drilling platform. And then I saw a boat coming at us very fast. We took off, but they were faster and kept swinging around us.

A guy lying on the bow slashed at the pontoons with a knife attached to a pole. He just missed Tod’s head with that huge knife. Tod held his hands up in surrender and they jumped in the boat, pinning us down and slashing the gas lines and the pontoons. I tried calling the Warrior on the radio, shouting what was happening, but it was torn away. Tod and I talked to each other, making sure the other wasn’t getting hurt as they hauled us into the metal boat and we all took off for the other inflatable.

The same thing was done to them. I was squirming around, with the goons holding on to me. We were really close to the platform. The activists in the other boat were trying to swim to it and the commandos trying to haul them in. I jumped in the water and swam for it too. Noncooperation. I would not make this easy for them. The longer this took, the less likely there would be a test today.

Our helicopter was hovering around the whole time, filming the commandos hauling us around, twisting arms and pulling hair. Those mercenaries used every dirty trick. One guy was dragged by his hair across coral, shredding the heavy sweater he was wearing until his back was bleeding.

They took us to a tugboat anchored in the lagoon and held us there for hours and hours, took all our gear. There were 10 or 12 of us on the tug, and we dried out our clothes and talked about what we should do. We figured that as long as we were on the tug in the lagoon they couldn’t test.

We said we would not move until we talked to our captain. They laughed at us and stared at us and were assholes every time we asked a question and wouldn’t let the women use a toilet until we threatened to pee on the deck. Then they got us a bucket.

WTHEN THEY WANTED TO MOVE US WE SAT IN A CIRCLE and clamped on to each other. They pulled everyone apart, kneeling on one guy’s head, and took half away in the patrol boat. They came back for the rest of us an hour later. I was clamped onto Herman, a very big guy, and they ripped us apart, peeling fingers back, pulling hair and twisting arms. They chained my arms to the ceiling, which I could barely reach. It was a long boat ride and we bounced around on sore arms and butts. Herman held up my legs to take some of my weight off my wrists. I was overwhelmed by the whole experience, and really tired.

They carried us off the boat, shoved us in a bus, and took us to the base. They took our pictures; on the third one they finally pulled my head back and got an out-of-focus shot of my scowling mug; unidentifiable, really. Then took us one by one into a little room. I went in with the woman. She put on rubber gloves. I refused to take my clothes off, but she got everything out of my pockets, wouldn’t give me my radiation badge back, and took my life jacket and outer clothing. They moved us again, in handcuffs. That time when they picked me up, my arms and wrists were screaming; I twisted and they dropped me on my damned wrists.

I kept thinking about nonviolence and whether what we were doing was nonviolent. We snatched our arms away when they tried to cuff us, and held on to things so they had to pry us off to move us. We talked about passive and active nonviolence. I figured being here in the first place was pretty active and elected to keep up my resistance.

At the next waiting place we were with everyone who had left the Warrior and the Greenpeace. We traded stories and heard that the ships were under tow and headed for the atoll. Then we slept, and whenever I woke up there were fewer people there. It got dark, and they brought us food, but no one would eat it.

SOMETIME AROUND 8:30 P.M. I WAS TAKEN TO BE QUEStioned. I gave my name, as we had been counseled to do for our safety, but wouldn’t tell the soldier anything else until he said that I couldn’t go back to my ship unless I told him which one I came from. He asked if I wanted to return to the Warrior or be flown to Papeete. Turns out he asked everyone that, and since we all asked to go to the ship, they flew us to Papeete.

We sat around for a while, and ate some food because we were miserably hungry and couldn’t remember any more why we had entertained the idea of refusing all their food. Personally, I think I can resist better when I have energy. They loaded us on a truck, again with our hands cuffed behind us, took us to the airstrip, and led us into the back of a troop transport plane, the kind with webbing benches in a bare plane. Then they buckled everyone in with our hands tied behind our backs for the two-and-a-half-hour flight. I found I could slide my hands under my bottom and pull them up in front of me.

Around midnight the reporters who had been on the Warrior joined us. They had their luggage from the ship and free hands. We told them about being handcuffed and the soldiers reluctantly recuffed everyone in front.

The plane was really loud and cold but most of us unbuckled and slept, sprawled over one another. When we landed in the airport in Papeete, they asked us to sign a form, and even though I could read the French, I refused. To hell with them. We entered the airport, which was crammed with reporters and cameras. I walked around in a daze.

The sky got light, a dim, cloudy paling. We piled in a bus and went to the Faa’a town hall, where I saw an exhibit of the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Burned, mutilated living bodies. We destroyed them. I walked out crying.

Still haven’t slept and my body is burning from tiredness and salty chafing but there is a protest march, so we ride there. It’s a weekend morning and just about the entire island is there. Everyone is glad to see us and congratulates us. It’s really hot. For hours we don’t know if a test took place this morning; finally we get news that it didn’t. And maybe there won’t be any tests.

September 5
THE FIRST TEST WAS TODAY. THE FRENCH SAID THEY would test even if activists were present and they did. Two men from Greenpeace were held in a sea level bunker while everyone else fled to higher ground when they set off the test. Fury. Stunned. And depressed.

We are starting to get news that the Tahitians are going to riot. There are about a thousand people at the airport and they intend to burn it down, that French-induced pestilence, that home of the military.

The Warrior and the Greenpeace have been towed to Hao, another atoll. We’ve gotten news that they are in terrible shape. I’m so tired, and angry at the way we were treated, and heartbroken that they hurt the Warrior. They boarded with gas-powered saws and sledgehammers, cutting through the bulkheads, through the doors, into the radio room. They smashed all the equipment. The news is that Jon, the captain, was in the crow’s nest on the Warrior for 36 hours. They couldn’t find him.

Things are rough for the crew on the Greenpeace. They are being watched every second, even in the toilet, which has been unholy hell for the women, who have had these hateful men standing over them.

I’m ready to do it again – sail right back into the test sites, again and again until the last bomb is exploded or they announce to the world that they won’t test more. But it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting the ships back very soon. I’ll probably be sent home in a few days.

March, 1996
I’M IN COSTA RICA, BACK ON THE MOBY Dick. Tomorrow a crew is flying to Moruroa from New Zealand to assess the damage to our ships, which have been held for six months although no charges were brought against us. The French have declined to participate in a World Court hearing, and have been less than cooperative in cases brought against them.

After I left the South Pacific, the French continued testing. Neither the activists in the atoll nor overwhelming world opinion could stop them. Six tests. Six more nuclear weapons. So much more radioactivity. So much more damage to the coral, to the region, to the planet.

In February, when it was over, the French said they wouldn’t do it again. They’re ready to sign another bullshit treaty. Sure, why not?

Nuclear testing used to be an abstraction for me. Now it has faces – the people of Te Ao Mahoi, my friends on the crews. It also has the faces of the commandos and Chirac, for whom I feel a great anger and shame. Each and every test is an act against each of us. They are messing with their futures and ours.

I feel it is very important to have done everything we possibly could do to stop the test. We all have the free will to do outrageous things and we sure as hell can try to do what is right.

GILLIAN MURPHY, a radio operator for Greenpeace, will join the MV Arctic Sunrise in the North Sea in May.