A Little Girl
I am watching with horror the relentless attack of B52's over the cities of Afghanistan. On the ground, I see long lines of townspeople running away hurriedly to safety. It seems that there is no other way to destroy or capture the terrorists who took the lives of so many Americans on September 11, but still it deeply pains me to see innocent civilians getting tangled up in this awful situation.
Among the crowd, I see a skinny young girl, probably around three years old, clinging tightly to her mother, whose entire body is covered by a black burqa. The girl's face looks so gaunt and panicicken my heart aches for her. She reminds me of myself when I had to run from aerial bombings in Japan over a half-century ago.
'B-29' was the first English word I learned. I was not yet three years old and didn't know what it meant. All I knew was that it was a terrifying word and I hated it. I had to stop everything, no matter what I was doing, when I heard someone scream that word. Then, Mom would quickly pick me up and carry me into the bomb shelter at the back of our house. My sister, Chiyoko, and my brother, Shigeru, who were twelve and nine at the time, followed right behind us.
Our bomb shelter, which had been dug by Mom with the help of our neighbors, was a very small hole in the ground, about three by three by four feet deep. As soon as we were in the hole, Mom pulled the cover over from inside. Then, in complete darkness, we clung to each other and waited.
At first, the B29's in the distance sounded like flying bees. Then their noise became so fierce my body trembled with fear even though Mom covered my ears and held me tightly. I knew I couldn't cry, no matter how scared I was. Mom told me that Americans could hear us, even though they were far away in the sky. After the planes flew away, Mom carefully looked outside and slowly let us all out. The bright daylight blinded our eyes, but it didn't bother us. It was wonderful to be outside. We were so happy not be confined in that awful damp place any more that we jumped around like puppies. Soon the neighbors gathered to congratulate each other on their safety. Then they wondered whether their relatives and friends in nearby towns were all right.
One day, the explosive noise lasted for an especially long time. The noise was so tremendous that we all thought the end was surely near. When it finally quieted down, Mom told us to get out quickly because she knew something awful had happened on the ground.
All the houses were on fire, including ours. Mom put me on her back and directed my siblings to follow right behind her. Then we ran with streams of screaming people. The town was in utter pandemonium. We ran past many burning streets. Finally, we arrived at the part of town that had been spared from the bombings. We went inside a Buddhist temple to take refuge. Afterward, the altar of the temple became the temporary shelter for our family and many others who had lost their homes that day.
A few days later, Mom took us to see our house up close and we saw what the bombings had done. The entire neighborhood was reduced to ruins. The houses were nowhere to be seen; only smoke was hovering over the streets. We walked around the area where our house had been, trying to find something that belonged to us. There was nothing left. The only things spared from the fire were the clothes we had been wearing that day. We stood there speechless. Smoke, and the combined smell of burnt wood, clothes and all our households' goods stung our eyes and noses.
"Don't cry," Mom told us wearily. Her hair was unkempt and her face was covered with soot. "We are lucky. We are all alive," she said, as if to assure herself.
Chiyoko and Shigeru nodded while they wiped their tears with their sooty hands. On our way, they talked about all the people who had been killed in bombings. Chiyoko said that she had heard from her friends that a bomb hit the house of one of her classmates and all her family members died instantly. I was too young to feel we were lucky and was terrified by what I saw. I didn't understand how the houses and neighborhood, my entire world, could vanish so simply. How could anyone destroy the place where I had lived so happily? I clung to Mom tightly, unable to articulate my fear.
"Mommy, I'm hungry," I complained. We had had a bowl of watery potato soup provided by the temple in the morning, but the amount was too little to satisfy me. "I'm hungry," I begged her again.
"Shut up!" Shigeru shouted at me. He looked so angry I felt scared and started crying. I rubbed my wet, dirty face into Mom's monpe, the work pants gathered at the ankles, which were worn by Japanese women during the war.
"You shut up, you fool!" Chiyoko shouted at Shigeru, poking his head. " Just because you can't say that you are hungry, you don't have to be mean to Kuniko."
"I'm not hungry," Shigeru said and tried to push Chiyoko.
"That's a lie," Chiyoko sneered.
"Stop that, both of you," Mom said quietly. She looked so tired she didn't seem to have any energy to scold us. She probably wanted to cry, too. She had no house to live in, no money to buy food, and didn't even know whether or not her husband was alive. She hadn't heard from him since he had been sent to the war more than a year before.
After a while, Mom put me on her back and trudged through the burnt field toward the temple. Hunger and fright made me very tired and soon I fell asleep on her back. As soon as I woke up at the temple, though, I cried again, remembering how hungry I was.
I later learned that on August 10, 1945, the day we lost our house, two hundred ten B29's had flown over Kumamoto, our city, and that more than five hundred townspeople had been killed. And yet, despite all the misfortunes, people in our city had still been lucky. Only a few days prior to our city being heavily attacked, the first atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and the second on Nagasaki on August 9. Nagasaki was only about a hundred miles from where we lived. Tens of thousands of people had died instantly and many who survived suffered from radiation-caused illnesses for years afterwards.
Then the war suddenly ended on August 15. The government announced that morning on the radio that the Emperor had an important message to deliver to the nation at noon. Everybody wondered and asked each other why the Emperor would suddenly speak to them directly. Until that day, he had been revered as a living divinity and as such, nobody had ever heard his voice. Then, the Emperor told the nation haltingly that Japan had surrendered. He asked the people to endure the unendurable and to prepare for whatever might come.
"It was terrible news!" Mom told me later. "For so many years, we were asked by the government to sacrifice our lives to make our country a stronger and wealthier nation. And until that moment, we had all been led to believe that Japan was winning." She said people were so disappointed with the news that most wept like children afterwards.
Looking at Mom sob, I worried. "Mommy," I called her. She didn't respond. "Mommy!" I called her again and pulled her monpe, trying to draw her attention. No use. She didn't even look at me. I was terribly alarmed.
Then I heard someone scream, "The war is over!" Shigeru and Chiyoko pulled my hands and said to me with a huge smile, "Come on, Kuniko. No more B29!" I followed them as they began running around the temple yard with the other children. They chanted, "No more war. No more B29!" I didn't understand exactly what it meant but I was so excited being with happy children. I shouted "No more B29!" as loud as I could. For a while, I even forgot that I had an empty stomach.
On the screen, the little girl in Afghanistan is disappearing into the crowd with her mother. All I see now is their backs. I have no way of knowing what will happen to her but I can't help but wish that she survives this ordeal. I find myself muttering to her, "Hang in there, little one. Your misery will soon be over."
(Kuniko Katz, a U.S. resident since 1969, was born and raised in Japan. She has earned many awards both here and in Japan for her community service. She has written numerous articles about life in America for the Japanese press and for The Scarsdale Inquirer. She is a student in the Sarah Lawrence MFA writing program.)