"When I became conscious, it was a dead city." The college students in the room are silent as Shigeko Sasamori stands in front of them. It looks as though she wears light pink lipstick. Up close, the scars around her mouth, neck and hands are clearly visible.
The morning American pilots dropped an atomic bomb on her city of Hiroshima, 62 years ago, Sasamori was 13. It was the first day of school, and she and other students were out on the street. "It was beautiful blue sky," she says. "I looked at the sky, the airplane I saw, and I told my classmate next to me, 'Look. That plane is so pretty.'"
"I saw white things dropping," she says, referring most likely to the atomic bomb called Little Boy, which was dropped by parachute from a B-29 plane. "Next, a very strong wind knocked me down. Then, I black out."
With a third of her body burned, she spent the next five days drifting in and out of consciousness in a school dormitory, repeating her name and address and asking for a drink of water. Eventually, she was reunited with her parents, both of whom survived the bombing. Of all her family members, she was the only one burned, though her father suffered from radiation sickness. "He was throwing up, having diarrhea and purple things coming out."
Ten years later, Sasamori and 24 other "Hiroshima Maidens" found themselves at New York City's Mt. Sinai Hospital. A group of American citizens, horrified by the U.S. atomic bombing of Japan, had sponsored reconstructive surgery for the women. The project was borne of a friendship between the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, the minister at Sasamori's church, and Norman Cousins, an American writer and peace activist, who eventually adopted Sasamori. The doctors and nurses who treated her at Mt. Sinai made her so comfortable and relaxed, she says, that she wanted to do the same for other patients. Eventually, she became a hospital nurse, working with babies.
It's only when speaking of children that frequently smiling Sasamori becomes somber. "I see new babies come into this world, and I don't want to see them to go to dangerous wars," she says in her choppy English, while making a cradling motion with her arms. "I hold them and I say, 'Not this baby -- not this baby happen what happen to me.'" Looking back out at the audience of young people, Sasamori pleads with the students, "No more war, no more war. Please young people, do not make war. We need a peaceful revolution." She tells her story about the bombing of Hiroshima, she says, not to be a “crybaby, only to touch the good part of the heart.”
Even when talking of her visit the day before to Los Alamos National Laboratory -- birthplace of the bomb that destroyed her city -- Sasamori expresses no anger. Instead, she talks of how her body tingled: “Wow, maybe the radiation is hitting me all over again. You can't hear radiation, or smell it, but there is a really wicked witch there," she says. “So I say, 'People working there, please get out of this city!'"
Sasamori has a second goal: As a new board member of a Albuquerque-based disarmament organization, the Los Alamos Study Group, she has come to speak with New Mexico's lawmakers. Her hope is that they will join her call for ending the production of nuclear weapons in the United States. New Mexico not only helped to spawn the atomic bomb, which was built at Los Alamos and tested at Nevada’s Trinity Site, but the state is also home to two nuclear-weapons factories, including Los Alamos. Today, they manufacture triggers for nuclear warheads.
The same week of Sasamori's visit, the Energy Department announced it had placed one of those triggers inside a nuclear warhead, which is carried on a submarine-launched Cruise missile. Currently, the United States stockpiles more than 10,000 nuclear warheads, and about 1,900 are stored on the edge of Albuquerque, at Kirtland Air Force Base. But though Sasamori tried to meet with New Mexico’s major elected officials, only the staff of Democratic Rep. Tom Udall agreed to see her.
She says she had one question she wanted to ask each of them: "Why is America still making nuclear weapons?"
Laura Paskus is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a freelance writer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.