It was 72 years ago, when Setsuko Thurlow was just 13, that she somehow escaped death after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on her city, Hiroshima, Japan. Now 85, Thurlow has spent much of the time campaigning to abolish nuclear weapons—and her religious faith has been an important factor in motivating her, she says.
“After the experience, I struggled emotionally, psychologically, spiritually,” she says. “I kept asking why, why, why America could do something inhumane, horrible like this—a Christian country…I struggled with this issue…but somehow I became very involved with religious teaching” and church activism, she says. Since then, her spirituality—she is a member of the United Church of Canada—along with a number of what she terms “environmental” factors, have been crucial drivers of her activism, she says.
Thurlow’s efforts will be recognized in December, when she will travel to Oslo, Norway, to jointly accept a Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), along with Beatrice Fihn, ICAN’s executive director. ICAN, a coalition of 468 organizations in 101 countries, was awarded the prize October 6, in recognition of its work drawing attention to the “catastrophic” potential of nuclear weapons and pushing for the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted this July by 122 countries. Thurlow has been involved in ICAN since it was founded in 2007, and took part in negotiations leading to the adoption of the treaty.
On the morning the bomb was dropped, Thurlow was in school. The building collapsed, and she got pinned under some debris, she says. A complete stranger helped free her. She never saw his face, because the ruined school was in total darkness—the particles in the air stirred up by the explosion blotted out much of the sunlight, she says.
Her classmates were less lucky.
“The building…was already on fire—that means about 30 girls who were with me in the same room practically all burned alive,” she says. “I knew people were around me, because I could hear my classmates asking, ‘God, help me,’ ‘Mother, help me.’ In the total darkness, I heard those voices around me.”
Finding her way outside, she saw people with flesh hanging from their bones, or part of their bodies missing, people carrying their own eyeballs or with their intestines hanging out.
Thurlow says some people have told her that perhaps God kept her alive because he had a mission for her, to fight to eliminate nuclear weapons. But she resists the idea.
“I don’t want to say that,” she says. “God does not play that kind of game. I feel I was simply lucky.”
Speaking in a news conference given by ICAN in Toronto Friday, October 27, Thurlow said being asked to receive the prize was a great surprise, and that she felt at once proud and humbled by it. But she remains deeply concerned about nuclear weapons, especially given the recent increase in tensions between North Korea and the United States.
“We are experiencing that danger right now, when two impulsive, irresponsible leaders have been exchanging threatening remarks,” she said.
And she also joined fellow ICAN members in calling on Canada to sign the treaty.
All nine of the countries now known or believed to have nuclear weapons, and Canada along with every NATO member except the Netherlands, boycotted the negotiations, according to the CBC. In a joint statement, the U.S., the U.K. and France said they did not intend to ever become party to the treaty. The ban, they said, was “incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence” and thus “will not enhance any country’s security, nor international peace and security. It will do the exact opposite.”
Prime Minister Trudeau has not yet congratulated ICAN for being awarded the prize nor reached out to Thurlow, said ICAN international steering group member Ray Acheson.
By joining a minority of countries that boycotted the talks, “Canada finds itself on the wrong side of history, and on the wrong side of humanity,” said ICAN campaigner Cesar Jaramillo.
Asked by an NDP member in Parliament this June about Canada’s decision to abstain from treaty negotiations, Trudeau cited the absence around the table of actual nuclear powers.
“There can be all sorts of people talking about nuclear disarmament, but if they do not actually have nuclear arms, it is sort of useless to have them around, talking…It is well-meaning, as the NDP often are, but we are actually taking real, tangible, concrete steps that are going to make a difference in moving towards a nuclear-free world.”
According to the National Post, a press secretary for Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland commented that Canada remained “firmly committed to concrete steps towards global nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation,” and that Canada plays a continuing role in UN talks on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.
Thurlow was also made a member of the Order of Canada in 2006 in recognition of her work for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other organizations, including the Canadian Council of Churches.
Note: The press conference was held October 27, not September 27 as reported in the earlier version of this story.