How it feels to live on Guam, an island under constant nuclear threat

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Corinne Redfern
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With the island of Guam under constant threat of a North Korean attack, resident Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero, 35, explains what it feels like to live in the middle of a global nuclear standoff.

“Standing in the shower, water hit my face and I scrunched my eyes shut. ‘Please don’t bomb us, please don’t bomb us,’ I half-prayed, half-pleaded, out loud to nobody in particular. ‘Dear America, please don’t put my family in danger again.’ Less than five minutes had passed since I’d woken up on 8 August to hear Donald Trump’s voice on the radio, threatening ‘fire and fury’ on North Korea. And while the Asian nation had yet to respond, I already knew what his words meant: if nuclear war was to occur, then my home was first in the firing line.

It was also my five-year-old’s first week at school. I received a notice from his teachers asking me to ensure he had a survival kit containing five sets of clean clothes, two gallons of water and a week’s worth of non-perishable food items. I spent every day feeling torn over whether I’m risking too much by sending him in. He’s so smart and knew that something was wrong. It was impossible to hide it from him and it felt irresponsible not to explain what was going on.

Guam should be paradise. A tiny island in Micronesia, it’s located around 1,600 miles east of the Philippines, right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. With a population of only 160,000, it’s so small that you have to click two or three times on the ‘plus’ button to see it on Google Maps. But zooming in is worth it. I grew up playing hide and seek in a tropical rainforest, and it’s just as easy to barbecue on the beach as it is to go out for a meal.

My house has a hammock strung up between two palm trees in the back yard, and at weekends my husband, Josh, and I take my two sons – a two-year-old as well as the five-year-old – hiking in the jungle to visit the Latte Stones, a series of three-metre high spiritual structures dating back to 800 AD. The whole island is steeped in history, and as direct descendants of its indigenous Chamorro people, my family is part of it. For over 4,000 years, my ancestors have lived here, farming the land and following ancient spiritual beliefs. I can’t imagine living anywhere else in the world. 

But last month, I was forced to try. Donald Trump’s threats to Kim Jong-un at the start of August saw North Korean General Kim Rak-gyom respond in kind, detailing how the Korean People’s Army were prepared to send four nuclear weapons into the sea and ‘envelope Guam with fire’. Bile rose in my throat when I heard his statement, but I didn’t feel surprised. As an American colony for nearly 120 years just 2,200 miles south-east of North Korea, and with two thirds of our land serving US military purposes, we’ve been raised to be aware of our vulnerability. For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard how Guam was attacked on the same day as Pearl Harbour, and we’ve all been taught survival skills at school.

Trump’s aggressive approach to foreign policy means my friends and I have been on edge all year. ‘Costa Rica or New Zealand it is then,’ Josh attempted to joke as I dripped back into the bedroom in a towel. It was a reference to a discussion we’d had back in April: we’d sat in the garden and picked the countries we’d flee to should World War III really break out.

Trump’s aggressive approach to foreign policy means my friends and I have been on edge all year

Even back then, as our children played among the tomatoes in our vegetable patch a few metres away, fear clouded all our conversations. Still, we’ve always known we couldn’t – wouldn’t – actually leave. We both grew up here. Guam is our home. The days that have followed North Korea’s announcement have been the most terrifying of my life. Newspapers have since reported that the country released a propaganda video, showing Guam being hit. I’ve stopped sleeping. I stare at the ceiling, turning my deepest fears over and over in my mind, working through every possible scenario until I dry wretch in the dark.

What if the bomb falls when my sons are at nursery or school and we’re separated? What if the nuclear fallout hurts my children? What if I stay on the island out of stubborn loyalty, when we’ve got the chance to leave? Even during daylight hours, my anxiety levels are stratospheric and the air outside feels fraught with tension.

Everyone is struggling. A friend told me her brother-in-law, a former soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder, is so triggered by the threat of a nuclear attack, he’s started talking about shooting random Koreans in the street. At the University Press where I work, I see colleagues sit at their desks with red eyes and can’t tell if they’re raw from tears or exhaustion or both.

One day, when I went to buy lunch from a café near my office, the waitress told me her university student daughter was so scared about being away from her parents that she’d begged them to take time off work and stay at home with her – just in case. ‘We can’t afford to both book the week off,’ the waitress explained. ‘So we’ve opted for alternate days. That way, she knows she always has at least one of us with her all the time.’

Even during daylight hours, my anxiety levels are stratospheric and the air outside feels fraught with tension

Despite trying to make my sons feel as safe as possible, the eldest soon started complaining of a stomach ache, and I spotted him jumping in terror whenever there was a loud noise. ‘What happens if the bomb drops and I’m on the toilet?’ he said, eyes wide and serious. One night, as I tucked him and his brother up in bed, he asked what would happen if the bomb fell when we were all asleep. ‘I’ll protect you, always,’ I reassured them both. As they drifted off, I tiptoed out to watch TV with Josh, when the power suddenly went out – switching off their night light and leaving the whole house eerily quiet. The boys sensed the change in atmosphere and burst into loud, hysterical tears. ‘Mummy, Mummy, did the bomb drop?’ they cried. Seeing their faces, I nearly cried too. They’re both so little. It’s all too much.

The truth is, were the bomb actually to fall, we would have exactly 14 minutes to get off the toilet, get under cover – preferably somewhere concrete – and stay put, or so we learned from Homeland Security’s hastily handed out sheets of A4. The alert would be sounded over the radio, which we’ve started to keep switched on low in the background, and we’d get notifications on our phones. I would then have 14 minutes to find my two wriggly, impatient sons and dress them; 14 minutes to call my family and make sure they knew where I was; 14 minutes to determine the rest of our lives.

Sitting at the kitchen table after North Korea’s response, Josh and I made a careful plan. We’ve only recently bought our first house, with gorgeous old shutters that we often forget to close at night. Were the alarm to go off, I’d get the kids while he ran around the outside, slamming them shut. Together, we would head for the hallway, where we’ve already stacked bottles of mineral water, torches and candles.

Then we’d just have to hold each other, and hope for the best. Reading the leaflets made my heart race, but also helped me to feel prepared. Nuclear fallout dissipates rapidly, they say – after two weeks, radiation in the air outside would be down to 1% and we could leave. And there were tiny facts that surprised me too. Apparently you shouldn’t use conditioner in your hair after an attack, because it can bind radioactive material to it.

In a way, North Korea’s announcement of the potential bomb almost felt like a relief – a public indication of our paranoia: confirmation that we haven’t been imagining things.

Finally, the world has had to double click on our tiny country and pay attention to the fact that by dint of its precarious geography and over a century of heavily militarised American rule, Guam and its residents have spent the last hundred or so years living in a state of disproportionately elevated risk. Way before Trump, I would sit in harbourside bars drinking wine with my friends, talking about the nuclear submarines we could see bobbing up and down in the water.

North Korea’s announcement of the potential bomb almost felt like a relief – a public indication of our paranoia

As a child, I would wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of low-flying bombers practicing their war moves. So I didn’t run to supermarkets this month to stock up on canned sardines and tins of soup because I was taught to already have survival supplies ready to go. After all, we’ve been through this before.

My grandmother survived Japanese occupation during World War II, and at least a third of my friends are employed – and regularly deployed – by the military. But the omnipresent threat of war is exhausting, and makes me angry. I’m certain that if we were independent from America, none of this would be happening – I believe whatever money we currently make from the military presence could be made by harnessing tourism instead.

It’s been nearly a month now since Trump’s statement and as it stands, we’ve heard nothing official about either country’s plans. Life is slowly returning to normal. But truth be told, once you’ve prepared your hideout, there’s not much you can do but carry on. But even when I’m swinging in a hammock at sunset, hiking through the jungle or building sandcastles with my sons, I can’t relax.

I don’t want to leave my island – it’s my heritage and my home. But I don’t want two men in two far-off countries to make me regret that decision either.”

Images: Photography by Nancy Borowick