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For American victims of nuclear tests, Oppenheimer does not sufficiently recognize their suffering

Wesley Burris was sleeping peacefully in his bed when the first bomb of the nuclear age exploded, just 25 miles from his home.

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For American victims of nuclear tests, Oppenheimer does not sufficiently recognize their suffering

Wesley Burris was sleeping peacefully in his bed when the first bomb of the nuclear age exploded, just 25 miles from his home. A blinding light invaded his lost home in the desert of New Mexico, in the southwest of the United States. Then suddenly, the incredible force of the explosion shattered the windows. Completely dazzled, he saw nothing, asking his father: “What happened? Did the sun explode?” This explosion, which occurred at 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1945, and its preparations, are filmed at length in “Oppenheimer”, favorite for the Oscar for best film. But despite a duration of three hours, Christopher Nolan's portrait of the father of the atomic bomb never shows the inhabitants who were victims of the famous Trinity test: on screen, the experiment takes place in a completely empty desert expanse. In reality, thousands of people - mostly Hispanic and Native American, according to a recent documentary - lived within an 80 kilometer radius around the top secret site chosen by the military and scientists to test the nuclear weapon. Among the neighbors, no one understood why a gigantic mushroom cloud disfigured the horizon, remembers Mr. Burris, now 83 years old. “We weren't afraid, because it didn't kill us immediately,” he says. We had no idea what it was.”

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Eight decades later, this American knows well the deadly consequences of the explosion, which projected radioactive elements up to 15 kilometers in altitude. The test took place in stormy weather, despite scientists' warnings, because the United States was in the midst of a bomb race to end World War II. After the explosion, torrential rains returned all the toxic material to the ground. The earth and dust of the desert, the water sources, the entire food chain: everything has been irradiated. As a result, Wesley Burris saw his brother die of cancer. Her sister also had to fight this illness, and her niece now suffers from the same illness. He himself suffers from skin cancer, which he tries to cure using natural Native American medicine. Despite the exorbitant price paid by the victims of the Manhattan Project, none of them have received any compensation. “We were treated like guinea pigs,” said Tina Cordova, a cancer survivor who heads the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, an association that demands justice. But unlike guinea pigs, “no one has ever come back to check our condition,” she enrages. For this activist, Oppenheimer has the merit of anchoring the Trinity trial in the consciousness of millions of spectators. But the feature film “did not go far enough”. With thirteen Oscar nominations, she hopes that the film team will use the March 10 ceremony as a platform to “recognize the sacrifices and suffering of the people of New Mexico.” “They knew about our existence when they made the film, but they chose to ignore us again,” regrets this woman, whose family has had cancer in five generations since 1945. She hopes that the United States will ultimately repair this historical injustice. Because if a law made it possible to compensate the inhabitants of Nevada, Utah and Arizona, neighbors of subsequent nuclear tests, nothing was ever attributed to the victims of the first bomb in New Mexico.

To help families, often in debt due to prohibitive medical bills, the community is increasing its charity events. “Maybe the Pentagon should hold a bake sale every week to balance its budget, like we are forced to do,” Ms. Cordova quips. For his part, Wesley Burris remains bitter about the “Oppenheimer” plot. “This film is just a bunch of lies,” he snarls. How many people died here? They never say anything about it.”

The octogenarian has been sidelined his entire life. In July 1945, two strangers wearing strange glasses were seen near his house on the day of the explosion, without saying anything. Afterwards, the authorities spoke of a “munition explosion”. A few years later, men in white overalls and masks took soil samples near the family home. Wesley Burris' brother was concerned. “They told him, ‘You have to get out of here. It will kill you.”

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