Hiroshima seventy-six years later: how grief and mass tragedy change the place

Today, 6 August 2021 will mark the seventy-sixth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the second nuclear bomb used in history, the first that was used for war purposes. This action cost the lives of two hundred thousand people, including women, men, and children without distinction, because the bomb is a tribunal that judges innocents without distinction. Seventy-six years later, if you walk through the streets of modern Hiroshima, you can still feel the weight of those lives ripped apart and the cries that were never uttered because death came first. In the space of a few seconds, the Japanese city went from being a quiet port town to a place of pain and death, whose presence can still be felt today. But it is not only in Hiroshima that we can breathe and feel the heaviness of the deaths of innocents, Auschwitz, Nagasaki, Tuol Sleng in Cambodia, Ground Zero in New York, all places that are indelibly etched in our memory and that even today, when we visit them, we feel the silence of the deaths that took place.

Hiroshima and the new weapon: life and death in the blink of an eye
Everyone knows the story of Hiroshima and how events unfolded. Open any contemporary history book and you will find every detail written in it. Some historians even divide the contemporary era into a pre-Hiroshima and a post-Hiroshima era. The beginning of an epoch in which man himself can checkmate himself, in which not even the creator of the bomb can conceive the effects that the device will create, because how can one consciously blame oneself for the death of two hundred thousand people in the space of a few moments? It is in the light of these considerations that the tragic event in Hiroshima takes on its greatest significance and enters our collective memory as a nightmare. It is 6 August 1945, 8:16 a.m. It is a beautiful day in Hiroshima, the sky is almost clear, only a few faint clouds populate the sky. From afar the sound of propellers can be heard, the inhabitants raise their heads to the sky. The noise comes from three B-29 bombers, now an almost daily scene in the Japanese skies, it has been several months since the Americans regularly bombed and searched the Japanese island, and its inhabitants are convinced that it is a mission like any other and that soon those planes will leave, they do not even imagine what is going to happen. Major Claude Eatherly, the meteorologist in charge of examining whether the atmospheric conditions are favorable for the drop, looks through the remote sensing instrument and confirms that it can be dropped. As mentioned, it is 8:16 a.m. on a quiet mid-summer morning, and from that moment on, time stops and the man enters the nightmare of a new era. Little Boy, as the bomb is called because of its shape, plummets downwards, detonating over the target at an altitude of 500 meters (to cause as much damage as possible), a flash of light cuts the sky. In an instant, seventy thousand inhabitants die instantly, and in the end, the number of deaths caused by radioactive damage will be two hundred thousand. But what remains of Hiroshima today, and what can be felt when walking through its streets? The city was completely razed to the ground, so today Hiroshima is a completely new and modern city, a city like many others if you look at it from an urban planning point of view, nothing that catches the eye. The air is strange, however, and you can feel it as soon as you leave the station, and the longer you stay in the city, the more you walk inside, the more this silent air enters you, and you are afflicted with a melancholy made of respect. Little has remained of the bomb’s passage, because little had to remain, and in this, the device carried out its task perfectly. The radioactive wind, however, could not erase one thing, the screams of its victims, who indelibly still populate the city today and can be heard, changing the place where the tragedy took shape. But not only Hiroshima is subject to this transformation, not only Hiroshima preserves the screams and pain of its victims in its land.

After Hiroshima but also before Hiroshima, other places in the nightmares of memory
Over the last century and beyond, there have been other places and events that have shaken the collective conscience, and which are now inscribed as nightmares in that community memory that also through the channels of mass information have led to the synchronization of emotions. Together with Hiroshima, but in different modus operandi, we find the Nazi extermination camps, with Auschwitz as the absolute symbol, in which we see the famous Fordist model applied to mass genocide at work. We find Nagasaki, a second Hiroshima. But we can also see lesser-known stories such as Tuol Sleng, the famous S-21. A former high school, which under the dictatorial regime based on communist ideologies led by the Khmer Rouge with leader Pol Pot who was supposed to lead Cambodia through an agrarian revolution into a new era, but who sanctioned the death of millions of Cambodian civilians and innocents, and as a symbol of the dictatorship precisely the S-21 prison camp. The numbers for this prison are terrifying, the figures speak of about twenty thousand victims, but it is not so much the number of victims per se that remains for those who visit the structure today, now transformed into a museum and UNESCO heritage site. The ways and sufferings that these innocent victims had to undergo are indelible and continue to populate that place of horrors (clearly visible are the bloodstains on the walls, and the fingernail marks on the floor for those who, gripped by total despair, tried with all they had to escape). The prisoners of the S-21 were innocent civilians, simple people suspected of activities against the regime or only of not agreeing with it, many intellectuals or teachers were locked up because as it is known, culture is always a threat to dictatorships. The last place I want to remember is ground zero in New York, the images of that day are still alive in all of us. From that day, 11 September 2001, the fear of terrorism was concretely born, and from there, no longer the fear of a foreign invasion, but a parceling out of the fear of the invader, no longer on whole armies but on the individual, giving rise to that fear of hyper-terrorism mentioned by Virilio. All these places, from normal places formed by scenes of everyday life, have been overwhelmed by mass tragic events, which have indelibly changed their appearance and meaning forever. The temporal dimension is only relative, their change is linked to the atrocities that took place, symbols of terror, and an integral part of our memory.

Places have memory, our task is to know how to listen to them
These places mentioned above, these small particles of space nailed down within a single time, are the most tragic testimonies to building a better future. These places speak, they speak to us continuously, they have not forgotten, it is up to us to know how to listen to them. Within them, anesthetic is created, an emotion of aesthetics of disappearance that must be grasped to create and give continuity to that participatory memory so as not to forget those mass tragedies. Entering those places frozen in time, the weight of the victims is still there, walking through those streets, through those rooms, with your face lowered and in silence you can still hear the screams and moans. However, memory is not perennial, memory must be passed on and built up, and we must not make the mistake of turning those places of memory into tourist attractions, which is, unfortunately, happening more and more. There is an empathic relationship between the individual and the space he or she visits, and where there has been pain through the principle of collective memory it can be felt, it can be grasped, and the cries that were shouted can be heard as loud as a boulder. If we believe in a better future, it is our task to keep those cries alive.

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