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On Tiny Japanese Island, Stoic Recovery For Forgotten Victims Of Tsunami

Japan’s March 11 tsunami smashed head on into tiny Oshima Island. Five months later, recovery is slow, especially since Oshima – like many other isolated islets – has been left to fend for itself. One bright spot is a volunteer group calling itself the “k

Philippe Pons

OSHIMA – Five months after the disaster, the small island of Oshima continues to paint a picture of total devastation. The island's small port is desolate. The almost completely submerged docks are barely visible above the water. Two heavy ferry boats rest on the shore, where they were tossed up by the tsunami. The roofs of wrecked houses are nearly hidden under mounds of rubble.

The island is 30 minutes away by boat from the port of Kesennuma, northeast of another island called Hunshu, which fared far better during Japan's monster March 11 earthquake and tsunami. That's because Oshima served as a kind of shield for Hunshu, taking the full blast of the sea. But like so many other islands in the Tohoku region and in other isolated areas of Japan, Oshima seems to have been forgotten by Japanese authorities.

Even in the beginning the island was more or less ignored. For the first 10 days after the catastrophe, Oshima's residents received no outside help at all. Left to their own devices, some residents organized into a volunteer brigade called the obaka-tai, or "kind idiots unit." The peculiar name conjures up the idea of a man who rushes to help his neighbors while his own house is burning.

"We are just ordinary people, not technocrats or bureaucrats. You rarely see them here anyway," says Hiroshi Murakami, one of the people involved with the obaka-tai. "Oshima means the ‘big island," but we are more like a tiny black dot on the surface of the sea. Our organization is nearly the same." A leader of some sort, Murakami insists, nevertheless, that he is not the boss. "There is no boss. We talk about various things and then we decide," he says.

Murakami identifies himself instead as an oyster farmer. "I worked in an oyster company for some time and then I came back here to take over my parents' business," he says. "In the family, we've been fishermen from father to son for about four generations now."

Murakami lost both his house and oyster farm to the tsunami. He recalls the first days after the disaster, before the island had any contact with the outside world. The islanders had no running water or electricity. They spent their days crawling through the wreckage looking for survivors. On the 10th day, they were finally spotted by a U.S. helicopter.

Nearly half a year later, Murakami and his neighbors are trying to put their lives together – still with little outside help. "We keep clearing things up, one block at a time, one house at a time," he says. And what about tomorrow? "I don't know," the oyster farmer says. "We are dealing just with today."

Suffering in silence

People in the Tohoku region fiercely want to improve their current situation. But they are not very communicative and outgoing. They are more reserved. Thus they never complain and they never actively criticize the authorities. They just know they have to cope.

"In houses that still stand tall but which were devastated on the inside, people often tell us to throw away everything," says Murakami. "They are so distressed they don't want to keep anything that could remind them of the disaster. But those of us in the association try to sort out dishes and some other stuff that can still be used."

An elderly woman sits in front of what had once been her house. She washes family pictures in a basin and tries to dry them on a string, held by clothespins. Slowly, she tries to reassemble the pieces of her past.

Murakami and the other young obaka-tai volunteers don't know what tomorrow will bring. But, by working and rummaging through the rubble, they've managed to create new bonds and renew old friendships. They spend their breaks telling jokes. A retired old man, who used to work as a sailor on a tuna boat, admires them: "They are a little naïve but the truth is that without them, Oshima Island is doomed."

Even with their hard work, the island is hurting – badly. The disaster was cruel for everyone, but in different ways for different people. According to a nurse who prefers to remain anonymous, young people are often more traumatized than the elderly. She cites the example of one 22-year-old woman whose car was swept away by the waves. The woman managed to escape, but her two girlfriends perished. "Since then she has been so afraid of water that she can't even stand to be in a bathtub," the nurse says.

But certainly old people suffer as well. "In the refugee centers, the elderly fare poorly. But at least there they have company," says the nurse. "In the tiny temporary accommodations, they are completely alone." One 93-year-old woman recently committed suicide. She left a message reading: "Now my shelter is my ancestors' grave."

Further south, on the islet of Miyato, not a sound can be heard. There are no more children. The school has been turned into a housing center. The students were all sent to a boarding school in Sendai. Residents no longer receive their daily newspapers. The man in charge of the delivery is dead and no one has replaced him. The same goes for the local doctor.

"In life there are ups and downs. There's nothing we can do about it," says an old lady busily sweeping the floor in front of her house. A dark stain on her white wall shows that water rose to more than one meter. "The hardest part is to put your heart back together," she adds without looking up.

Read the original article in French

Photo - yama-t

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