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An illustration of Setsuko Thurlow. Rebecca Clarke for Vox

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Setsuko Thurlow is a living reminder of the horrors of nuclear war

She survived the bombing of Hiroshima — and has spent her life campaigning against atomic weapons.

Bryan Walsh is the editor of Vox’s Future Perfect section, which covers the policies, people, and forces that could make the future a better place for everyone. He worked at Time magazine for 15 years as a foreign correspondent in Asia, a climate writer, and an international editor — and wrote a book on existential risk.

To understand the nature of nuclear war requires an imaginative leap that is all but impossible. These weapons are orders of magnitude more powerful than anything that has been seen on a battlefield for decades. What they could do to human bodies if used today would be so horrific that it seems like the stuff of nightmares, not reality.

Yet there is one dwindling group of people who not only know what it is like to witness a nuclear weapon in war, but who somehow survived that experience. They are the hibakusha, the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the US dropped atomic bombs on the cities at the end of World War II. And Setsuko Thurlow is their voice.

Thurlow was a 13-year-old schoolgirl working as a member of a student mobilization program just outside of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Around 8:15 that morning, she saw a blue-white flash outside the window: the detonation of the first nuclear bomb used in warfare. What she saw when she regained consciousness and escaped the burning building defies belief.

“It was like a procession of ghosts,” she told Democracy Now. Burnt flesh was hanging off survivors, many of whom were missing limbs. Bodies of the dead were burned and blackened and swollen, often beyond all recognition. Those who still clung to life dragged themselves to an army training ground, where they begged for water, and then they died. Thurlow herself lost eight members of her family in the bombing, including her 4-year-old nephew Eiji, who was “transformed into an unrecognizable melted chunk of flesh.”

In the years that followed, Thurlow focused on surviving and finding her way through the ashes of postwar Japan. In 1954 — the same year her father died from radiation poisoning — she moved to the US to study sociology. It was there that her activism was awakened. Jolted by the test of a hydrogen bomb by the US in the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands, which exposed 23 men on a Japanese fishing boat to nuclear fallout, she joined the nascent anti-nuclear movement, traveling to dozens of countries to tell the stories of the hibakusha and warn the world about the existential threat of atomic weapons.

Those efforts culminated in her involvement in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), an international nonprofit dedicated not merely to raising awareness of the threat of atomic arsenals, but eradicating them from the world. For its work, ICAN, which has promoted an international treaty that would ban nuclear weapons, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

Along with ICAN executive director Beatrice Fihn, Thurlow accepted the prize on behalf of the organization. She asked the audience in Oslo to feel the presence of those who had been killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “Each person had a name. Each person was loved by someone. Let us ensure that their deaths were not in vain.”

There are many reasons why an international treaty to ban nuclear weapons may prove ineffective, not least because the countries that possess those weapons stand in stalwart opposition. And in a world where power remains the motivating force of politics, as Russia has demonstrated, unilateral disarmament would be ill-advised. But the stories of Thurlow and her fellow hibakusha must be heard, for only they can tell us of the human horror that would be unleashed should these true weapons of mass destruction ever again be used.

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