October 4, 2012
Yami Lester was just 10 years old when the United Kingdom began testing nuclear weapons near his home in Australia. A major test, named Totem 1, was detonated in the early morning of 15 October 1953, sending a thick, oily, radioactive cloud through his town of Wallatinna – around 100 miles from where the bomb was detonated at Emu Junction.
“A few hours after the black smoke came we all got crook, every one of us. None of us could hunt, so we couldn’t have our traditional bush tucker,” Yami recalls. “We were all vomiting; we had diarrhoea, skin rashes, and sore eyes. I had really sore eyes. They were so sore I couldn’t open them for two or three weeks. But we were all crook. Some of the older people, they died. They were too weak to survive all of the sickness … I was too young, I didn’t understand why this black smoke had come and made us all crook.”
After two or three weeks Yami finally managed to open his eyes: “My left one could see a little bit, but my right eye had gone totally blind. After a bit of time my left eye started to get better and I could see some more. But then over time it got worse again, and in 1957 I became totally blind. I lost all my sight. I still remember that night on the way to the clinic; the last thing I ever saw was the moon in the sky. I never got to see again.”
Yami became a brush maker in Adelaide, making brushes for brooms. He made brooms for 13 years and 10 months, and jokingly called himself a “broomologist”. This work required him to learn to speak English, which he later used to get a job as an interpreter, translating his native Yankunytjatjara in hospitals and courts for those who could not speak English.
“I remember one day in 1980, I had the flu so I didn’t go to work. I stayed at home and listened to the radio for a little while. They were talking about a man called Sir Ernest Titterton, who was an English nuclear scientist. He said that the tests conducted in Maralinga and Emu Junction were all done safely. I thought that was a big lie! So that’s when I decided to speak out.”
Since 1984 Yami has been instrumental in raising awareness of the effects of the nuclear tests in Australia on Indigenous peoples. In 1985 the Australian government conducted a Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia, which found that Indigenous communities near Wallatinna experienced radioactive fallout from Totem 1 in the form of a black mist or cloud. Unfortunately the commission was unable to conclude that the black mist caused or contributed to the blindness of Yami Lester because of “the historical uncertainties and the current state of scientific knowledge”.
Yami now lives back at home in Wallatinna with his family. Some of the local water supplies test high for radiation, but there are currently two bores with safe drinking water. “War makes me scared. War is scary. But war with nuclear bombs would be even scarier – just thinking about it makes me shiver. No one would be safe in nuclear war. Those nuclear bombs are no good, we gotta make sure nobody uses them, and we gotta support anyone who’s trying to stop them.”
Story by Jessica Lawson. Photo and video by Jessie Boylan.