Australia

Survivor of atomic crimes in The Centre


By MIKE GILLAM

Every six weeks or so I drive between Alice Springs and the southern reaches of the Lake Eyre basin.

A few months after meeting the French tourist (Night Drive) who suffered from acute anxiety but had the courage to drive an unreliable bomb across the continent, I had an inspiring encounter with a lithesome Aboriginal man.

Departing Coober Pedy after lunch I quickly found myself struggling to stay awake. Long days and difficult schedules were catching up with me and in the middle of summer, the heat through the glass was sapping.

Out the window I try to identify familiars, naming the plants helps stave off fatigue. It’s far too hot to follow the recommended procedure – stop on the roadside, tilt the seat and take a power nap before resuming my journey.

I’m forced to make a choice between a sugar hit or strong coffee; a slow death by sugar is definitely preferable to falling asleep at the wheel.

The roadhouse staff are backpackers, French on this occasion and of cheerful character that possibly highlights the brevity of their tenure in retail. I promote the cultural values of nearby Coober Pedy as a unique place to live and work but they’ve already been spooked by the town’s underlying reputation as the Wild West. I do my best to counter, giving them a lecture about stereotypes and telling them I’ve encountered no threats, quite the opposite, fifty years of friendship and wonder.

The lavish ice-cream kept me alert for less than an hour before the deep tiredness returned. I kept my eyes open with great effort, blinking and pouring water over my head and chest to assist the struggling air conditioner.

Hot and tired I began to experience minor hallucinations as distant bushes took the form of road signs. I was startled by a fine splatter of mud on the passenger side window animated by a ray of light, that on closer inspection, didn’t look anything like a fly past of fifty budgerigars.

Then I saw the lilting, wafting form of a slender tree, moving side to side in the heat shimmer. I blinked hard several times and the tree continued dancing.

At two hundred metres the man took definite shape and I began to brake. I was driving north and he was walking south but there was no sign of a disabled vehicle nearby. We exchanged a wave when he realised I was intending to stop and he walked to the roadside while I turned around.

Confused, I asked: “What’s happening, where are you going?”

The hatless man whom I later established was 50 years old was clutching a small bottle of water, its contents perilously low. He extended a lean muscular arm and pointed south west in the direction of a low range about 20 km away.

“Indulkana, short cut.”

Wow, that would take me six hours minimum.

He nodded his head and said: “Get to community tonight.”

Where you coming from? He pointed back to the north east and muttered “been walking days”.  Shocked, I made some room and said: “Jump in, I’ll drive you there.” He sank into the front seat and asked, “maybe just go to turn off,” still 10 km short of his destination at Indulkana.

I admonished my passenger for walking with so little water, mid-afternoon on a day of 41 degrees and he replied a little defensively that he’d tried to have a sleep under a bush but he had too much pain from cramps in his feet so he kept walking. He was a resolute character and I decided not to interrogate the circumstances of his long walk any further.

By way of changing the subject I mentioned the Yankunytjatjara statesman Yami Lester and his family of campaigners from nearby Wallatinna, and my passenger responded with delight, confirming he was a relative.

Yami’s totem was ngintaka, Varanus giganteus, the largest goanna in Australia, commonly called Perentie (pictured). A photograph of goanna tracks features on the first edition cover of his book: Yami. The Autobiography of Yami Lester.

An indigenous rights leader and activist on many fronts, Yami represented people of the APY Lands of South Australia with great integrity and distinction. He served as Director of the Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs for six years, an organisation he co-founded in 1969 with the Reverend Jim Downing of the Uniting Church.

On the international stage, Yami is best remembered as a casualty of the British Atomic Tests and a tireless advocate in gaining recognition for the 1800 Aboriginal people, catastrophically impacted by radiation.

“In 1953, I was just ten years old when the bombs went off at Emu and Maralinga. I got sick and went blind from the Totem 1 fallout … and lots of our people got sick and died also,”  said Yami in a Friends Of the Earth (FOE) interview.

Yami died in 2017, aged 75, and later that year his daughter Karina campaigned at the United Nations in support of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Decades earlier FOE and the Australian Conservation Foundation had supported Aboriginal people in their campaign to prevent the establishment of a high level nuclear waste dump in arid South Australia.

Yami inspired and supported the many activists who worked on this six year campaign. The campaign was led and finally won in 2004 by senior Aboriginal women, the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, from Coober Pedy, many directly impacted by the 1950’s atomic testing.

“An ambassador for the NO Dump Alliance he spoke loud and strong against nuclear waste dumping in South Australia. In 1981, Yami was awarded the Order of Australia medal for service in the field of Aboriginal Welfare. And his daughters, Karina and Rose, continue their father’s legacy today. They were deserved winners of the 2015 Jill Hudson Award for their powerful leadership in the fight against the high level waste dump …” saenvironmentawards.org.au 2024.

The eulogy posted by FOE captures the essence of Yami’s story, his kindness and great intelligence, the horrific consequences of the atomic tests and his life time of advocacy.

“Along with Maralinga veteran Avon Hudson, Yami was responsible for the formation of a Royal Commission in the 1980’s that shone a light on the atomic crimes of the British government, the spinelessness and culpability of (Australian) state and federal governments, and the ugly racism that pervaded everything to do with the atomic bomb tests.” (FOE, 9 August 2017).

Many serving military personnel were also callously exposed to radiation by those in charge but clearly not responsible. I try not to think about the unknown toll on desert wildlife.

In the late 1990’s I visited Yami and his family at Wallatina to take photographs for a poster and book cover commissioned by the Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD), its press a leader in the publication of so many significant books preserving language and documenting culture.

Thereafter our paths crossed occasionally during Yami’s visits to Alice Springs for meetings or shopping and the Yankunytjatjara leader would always respond to us by name. I witnessed this incredible ability often, in mixed groupings or people out of context, it didn’t matter.

Without introduction Yami responded confidently to the many familiars who approached him in the street. I imagine he applied the same incredible recall for voices in the halls of Canberra where he was so effective.

Often required to engage in hard conversations, nonetheless Yami is remembered as one of the most effective and unifying figures of our times. He was greatly admired and loved by everyone who knew him.

Living alongside Aboriginal people from different language groups over the past fifty years has profoundly shaped my thinking. Predictably, sacred country, totemic plants and animals have become a rich bridge with my traditional interlocuters, especially the Arrernte.

And so it has become a habit to remember special friends through their animal or plant totem. In this way, Yami lives on and I can well imagine his family and close friends thinking of that distinguished old man whenever they encounter a large and impressive ngintaka strolling through his desert estate.

Postscript: Spurred on by cold war tensions and fear of a world war involving weapons of mass destruction the British Government were unsuccessful in gaining approval from the US and Canada to conduct tests in remote areas.

Permission was granted by the Australian Prime Minister Menzies and the atomic testing program began in 1952 off the coast of WA.

Seventy years later a warning sign located at Trimouille Island in the Montebello group, an archipelago of about 174 islands, recommends minimising exposure to radiation by restricting visits to one hour per day.

In total 12 nuclear weapons tests were conducted by the UK in the 1950s and 60s, mostly at Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia. Despite public safety assurances, radioactive fallout was recorded as far away as Townsville.

According to Wikipedia (Nuclear weapons tests in Australia) “a few hundred smaller scale tests were conducted at both Emu Field and Maralinga between 1953 and 1963.”

Recently Australian nuclear test files were removed from the National Archives at Kew and placed in the Nucleus archives that focus on the British civil nuclear industry.

According to a CNN report, “Nucleus also does not offer the type of online access to its records as the National Archives does … In correspondence … the NDA (Nuclear Decommissioning Authority) suggested those interested in the files could file freedom of information (FOI) requests.”

According to the BBC, “multiple UK departments – including the Home Office and Cabinet Office – have been repeatedly condemned by auditors for their poor, disappointing and unacceptable treatment of FOI applications.” Sounds familiar!

Anyone who has navigated the Freedom of Information process will understand freedom’s price, of information hidden behind redacted details and walls of “commercial in confidence” by governments desperate to avoid national shame and more comfortable shaming troublesome citizens.

Clearly, the 30 year convention for declassifying documents does not always apply. In remote Australia, today’s activists and scholars are often thwarted by spurious claims of commercial-in-confidence by local, Territory and Federal Governments.

In contrast, I don’t think we can begin to imagine the difficulties faced by Yami Lester and others trying to get past the maze of secrecy provisions cited by successive Department of Defence and Ministry of Defence in both Australia and England.

Probity afforded by the McClelland Royal Commission (1984-5) helped. I intend to write further on this dreadful chapter in our nation’s history once I’ve had a chance to visit and document various sites.



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