Kuniko Katz's essays,
articles and letters to the editors
A little girl in Afghanistan:
Big City Lit, March 2002
I am watching with horror the relentless attacks of B52s 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’d taken the lives of so many Americans on September 11, but
still it deeply pains me to see innocent civilians getting tangled up in this
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 panic-stricken my heart aches especially for
her. She reminds me of myself when I, too, 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 B29s 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 if 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 at the time 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
were 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’d been killed in bombings.
Chiyoko said that she 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’d had a bowl of watery potato soup
provided by the temple in the morning, but the amount was too little to satisfy
“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’d been sent to the war
more than a year ago.
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.
On August 10, 1945, the day we lost our house, I later learned that two hundred
ten B29s 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 were still 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 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 were all 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
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