By Tara Bannow, Iowa City Press-Citizen
In her bicycle trek across Japan last month, Iowa City resident Michelle Gin met a number of hibakusha, the Japanese term for survivors of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S. in 1945.
One woman, a volunteer emergency aid worker, recounted to Gin her experience of rushing to the hospital just after the bomb dropped. The streets were filled with burned bodies and hands reached for her ankles for help as she walked by.
“How can we do this to other people — no matter the reasons?” 23-year-old Gin said Sunday. “There are other ways to solve problems.”
Gin represented the U.S. in August on a roughly 370-mile bike ride from Nagasaki to Hiroshima with the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. A total of 40 people from 20 countries participated in the two-week trek, which included speeches, conventions and visits with other activists and atomic bomb survivors.
Gin, who works in the University of Iowa’s study abroad office and plans to get her master’s degree in public health, talked about her trip Sunday at PEACEIowa’s annual meeting at the Coralville Public Library.
At times, hearing survivors’ stories turned Gin into an “emotional wreck,” she said, but ultimately, the experience made her an even stronger peace activist.
“It makes me want to work for this cause even more,” she said.
The days of biking were long — the group woke up at 5 a.m. each morning — and incredibly hot, Gin said. The areas they traveled were mostly rural, she said.
Along the way, the group met inspiring activists fighting against the construction of new nuclear power plants, some of whom spend all day every day protesting, Gin said.
The most powerful component of the trip, she said, was the ability to have long, meaningful conversations about how change can happen. The people Gin met on her trip, contrary to some she’s met in the U.S., were genuinely interested in learning and brainstorming ideas, she said.
Ed Flaherty, a member of PEACEIowa’s Board of Directors, said Gin’s message is “at the core” of his organization’s goals, some of which are to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons.
“War should not be an instrument of foreign policy,” he said.
The ultimate lesson of the trip was forgiveness, she said. Along the way, Gin said she struggled with feelings of guilt for being a citizen of the country that dropped the bombs — although they took place long before she was born — but was encouraged by the people she met.
“Forgiveness was very critical in all of this,” Gin said, “to forgive what happened in the past so we can move forward together for a peaceful future.”