STORY1 South African volunteer recalls relief experience by Thomas Kantha
I could not believe what was unfolding before my eyes! The utter destruction caused by the tsunami after the Great East Japan Earthquake was unbelievable. Seventeen years ago, I was caught up in of the ‘action’ when the Hanshin earthquake hit the Kobe area, and, due to my proximity I was able to respond almost immediately.
However, this time I wanted to reach the area as soon as possible and provide whatever assistance I could offer. I gathered my tent, sleeping bags and warm clothes and called nearly every transport department, however, there were no flights, rail or bus service available. I then called the city volunteer department and was surprised to hear that they had no idea what was happening!
A few days later, I was lucky to get a on a night bus to Sendai via Yamagata. In Sendai, I was directed to the volunteer center of the City Officer where I had to register and waited around for three hours for some direction. Later, another volunteeer recognized me from the Kobe disaster and advised me to head to Ishinomaki where I would be better used. I then headed to the Ishinomaki bus terminal. By now, the bus trip from my home to Ishinomaki took over twenty hours.
I was lucky to get on the bus and head to Ishinomaki, which is a two hour bus ride but under the circumstance now took over fours hours. The aftermath of the tsunami and earthquake was unfolding minute by minute. When I reached Ishinomaki I was greeted with scenes of utter devastation that was worse than what was depicted on TV. Reality had struck home! I had to walk nearly four kilometers with my luggage to the volunteer center, which was based at Senshu Varsity. However, on the way, a group of volunteers from a different part of the country gave me a lift to the volunteers center at Senshu University.
By now, it was quite late, and the staff at the Centre told me to come back in the morning. There were hundreds of young volunteers camping outside in the bone-bitting cold at it was the middle of winter. Luckily, four volunteers invited me into their team. They had only been there for a day, but had already planned and mapped out a course of action better than the volunteer center – these were true professionals.
They introduced me to a therapist who was attending to those who were traumatized. After my first evening of travelling for nearly twenty hours, for the first time I felt at home. The therapist spoke to me and asked me to join his team. He gave me a crash course on how to speak and handle myself. He told me that we would only work for about five hours, from seven in the morning to about noon, and after that we must leave the refugee camps as it can be very stressful. After lunch, we headed to the center of the disaster area and with every step I felt a change in me.
We went into homes that were flooded to the ceiling and in some cases to the second floor. Our work was to get into the muck and shovel it out. The smell was nothing that I had ever experienced before. It even oozes out of you when you are sleeping. We were warmly received by the people as we were the first volunteers to start mopping up house by house. We retrieved corpses from nearly every home I visited. We usually held a minute of silent prayer before we cleaned a house or shop. More than 6 000 people lost their lives in this area!
My appreciation goes out to the self-defense force, the fire fighters and policemen. It was good to see all the rescue teams from around the world, some of whom I later came to know personally. The volunteers came from far and wide. They were young, very young, old and very old but they all gathered to share their time and energy and experience.
I was a cook, a builder, a therapist and many more things. The most moving compliment was when a man from South America asked me if I was a Shaman. I asked him why thought that and he responded that he noticed how the old people and children welcomed me when I visit them with the therapist. The children climb all over me as if I was Santa and using my shaving kit, I gave the men a shave. I also found gas burners and made sure that they had some warm food or hot water.
At night, our tent became a counseling center for the young volunteers with whom we shared our food and drinks. I was fortunate to have a free pass to the warehouse so I was able to take the tools and other things that were necessary when we went to clean the city and other devastated area. My first seven days were so rewarding mentally and psychologically that I made four trips to the disaster areas. Each trip brought me closer to the people and I became part of the city and surrounding areas.
I was able to coordinate programs through the business union. I just called them and told them how long I would be there and they made sure that all their members were notified. When I was there, the union leader would bring me a map and the names of people that needed assistance. I went from door-to-door and evaluated what was to be done and coordinated which volunteers would come and work with me.
Each home was used as a learning place. I made it my obligation to sit and have coffee with the volunteers and homeowners and get them to tell us about their personal experience during and after the tsunami. These coffee sessions brought the volunteers and families closer together. Their stories are not written anywhere, which is why it was important that we have an oral history lesson. It marked the first time that volunteers and experienced volunteers were exposed to a personal relationship. I encouraged the volunteers to write a thank you card to the people that were kind enough to let us into their homes and to share their experiences.
I feel that I have changed and this experience has helped me revalue my own life. The people were magical. There was no grabbing of things nor any looting. It was always, “You first, please!” Even when food was distributed, it was organised in a disciplined manner. I was highly impressed by the way people were able to team up and keep their spirits up. There was no running water, no gas and no electricity, but the human spirit was there in abundance.
I was prepared for a chaotic situation but, to my surprise, no shops were looted and people shared what little they had. There was no fussing and waiting for handouts. People of all ages were engaged in helping each other. Everyone helped those that were weaker. I witnessed this without fail everyday. When I first came in by bus, the roads were severely damaged however, seven days later these roads were as good as new - kilometer after kilometer. This is a lesson other countries should learn. The local government, the private sector and the unions worked hand-in-hand to get things done. Please do not get the impression that all was 100% and in some instances some thing were too slow for my liking. But I have to give them the benefit of the doubt under the circumstanes. The strong work ethic of all the people may be one of the reasons why so much progress was made in such a short time.
Being a foreigner and being from South Africa was not a barrier. Ishinomaki was a home away from home. People took care of me and I was warmly welcomed into their homes. They shared what little they had with me and I felt my presence was appreciated. I went there with a positive attitude. Getting up in that freezing cold each morning, from your sleeping bag took some getting used to. There was no hot water nor showers. After five to six hours a day deep in the muck and with a rancid smell, a warm shower would have been most welcomed but under the circumstances, a luxury. But for me just being there assisting and experiencing history in the making was food for my soul. The letters and cards that I received and continue to receive, are the invaluable treasures from my new friends and family.
Golden Week in Japan is similar to the Easter break in other parts of the world. For those lucky people fortunate enough this means having a week to unwind. For me, it was different. My wife knew it was time for me to pack and get back to the tsunami area. It is important to acknowledge the unfailing support of my dutiful wife. All my (7) trips into the disaster areas would have been impossible if it had not been for my wife, (Tokiko).
March eleventh of 2011 saw me, like the world's millions, watching the disaster unfolding in absolute shock. Talking about a nuclear meltdown is something we do not take with a pinch of salt. Without stopping to know the safety issues and the dangers of the nuclear fallout I instinctively got ready to leave. Having someone by my side, understanding my drive to get to the disaster area and do what I can, is the most important factor on my many visits.
The Americans declared an eighty kilometer radius and the Japanese government a thirty kilometre radius as as a no go area. That did not in any way change my planned schedule to get there as soon as possible. Back home my wife and daughter waited anxiously to hear from me. It may sound crazy but one does get so overcome by the enormity of this great disaster that one has no time to even think about fretting families. In the face of the disaster we soon forget about the people who might be worrying about us. You just do whatever you can and are able to do because there is no time to stop and think. Back in my tent it was freezing. I wanted desperately to call to say I was safe but there was no way to recharge my cellphone so ! ; every call had to be calculated in case of emergencies. Nevertheless too many calls home was a luxury we couldn’t have in the very beginning. ( as volunteers) My wife is the one who supports me mentally, spiritually and financially. This has been a turning point in my life in many ways . To have someone who is willing to support me is what sustains me through my volunteer work, despite the huge risks.
On May 28th my Golden Week Holiday began and my bags were packed to catch the late night highway bus. My wife got home a bit early from work to pack some sandwiches and fruits for my trip. It was these ordinary, everyday acts of love and support that encouraged and kept me motivated. The trip was the usual twelve hour trip from Osaka city to Sendai City. I waited for an hour to catch the bus into Ishinomaki City. It is a ninety minute trip by bus. What a reception I received when I got to the base! I felt like I had never lef! t the place. The volunteer center where I had to sign in had been relocated. Some of the staff remembered me from my last trips and welcomed me as though I was a like a long lost celebrated friend and I was introduced to the new staff members. I did my rounds, saw the people that I met on my previous trips and got my work schedule set. We talked about the human misery in disasters but, behind the scenes lay man's best friends - the pets and farm animals. Like the people I had come to know, they resembled shadows that I occasionally bumped into. I joined the volunteers that went into the devastated areas to rescue animals and take them back to the shelters. On my first rescue assignment I had seen an array of carcasses of animals. floating ! in the rivers. It was such a tragic sight and I became emotionally dra ined. On my next trip I found it mildly easier to cope andhelped (support) an awareness project about the plight of pets in general. I made time to visit one of the shelters for animals which housed predominantly cats. I was told that the shelter held a family of eighty cats which need to be fed and cleaned daily. Some needed medical care. Some of these feline creatures just ignored me as I passed by .Some came all over me. I was touched not only by the cats but by the dedication of one Ms. Abe who was the mother to all the cats. I asked her how she could do this day in and day out She replied: " The same way you came over a thousand kilometers to share your know-how with people that meant nothing to you". I was curious and asked her what might that be. She told me that it comes down to one's humanity and love for all life forms. I spent a few hours with cats and soon had to get back to some other unfinished work. On my way to my next destination I designed a cat tower . I went to a friend in the community who is a carpenter. He told me to call him the next day and that he would have a mini cat tower ready for me to collect. We invited Ms. Abe to adjudicate on the construction of the cat tower and modify it if it was necessary. Well, suffice to say it is built and installed, and there are a few more orders for the cat towers!
While I was visiting the cats and doing my other volunteer work I dropped in for a cup of tea at Matsumura’s Sports Shop. Mr. Matsumura has this new project. It is a greenery project. He has the support of one of the world’s best natural garden designers (Ishihara.Garden designer).I watched his DVD in the shop and I signed on to join this project. For many years I have been mountain cleaning in Japan. I am fond of the outdoors and nature in general. My wife and I have many varieties of herbs, flowers and other plants on our balcony. I have been collecting plants for this new greenery project. I have to be careful of the plants I choose to send up to that area because the winters are very harsh. I guess I will now have to learn about the climate and the type of plants that will flourish in them.
This journey into the tsunami and earthquake devasted zones of Japan has been a life changing experience for me. I intend to do many more things and hopefully they will bring joy and comfort to many affected people. On a personal level, I hope my involvement reaffirms my belief in the undaunting spirit of the human race. I will be going back there, soon