x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Volunteers bring help to victims

While residents try to fight their way back from the disaster's devastation, young people from outside the area are working to support them

OGATSU, JAPAN // Almost a month after an earthquake and tsunami struck north-east Japan, the devastation it caused has lost none of its power to shock.

Ogatsu, a town in Miyagi prefecture, was left unrecognisable after the tsunami waters swept through. Today, it resembles a scene from a disaster film rather than real life.

Cars lie crushed and twisted. A coach sits on its side by the road. Nearly all the buildings have been reduced to rubble and massive metal girders lie randomly across the debris. The odd household on slightly higher ground has survived, albeit with considerable damage that will likely take months to rectify. The rest of the town is proof that predictions that it will take five years to rebuild Japan's affected areas are no exaggeration.

The devastation has been so complete that even now Ogatsu government officials are relying on charity for sustenance, long after the plight of towns such as theirs was pushed from the headlines by the continuing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant further south.

Each evening firefighters, administrators and others engaged in early efforts at tidying up the chaos head uphill from the town to a rubbish recycling centre.

It is here that a Tokyo-based non-governmental organisation, Peace Boat, offers the embattled officials a hot meal, a luxury in an area where services were destroyed by the natural disaster of March 11.

Some of those who arrive each evening have lost friends, colleagues and homes. Many camp down for the night in a tent set up at the centre.

The former town official Yamashita Hiroshi, 51, enjoys the comparative luxury of the back of a van to sleep in after his home was destroyed in the tsunami.

He was at work when he felt the earthquake, and rushed up to the roof of the three-storey town hall as the waters rushed through, staying there for two nights.

"They have cleared the street now, but the town is full of rubble and rubbish," he said, after eating the simple charity meal of soup and rice at the recycling centre. "Right after the tsunami, you couldn't find a way through. It looked really awful."

While there are roads through Ogatsu now, they are narrower than before, just the width of the corridor that mechanical diggers were able to push through the rubble. The highways leading to the town are clear but relatively empty, with about half the traffic made up of firefighting and military vehicles engaged in the long task of clearing the town.

Mr Hiroshi is now engaged in dealing with offers of aid and determining which ones the town can benefit from, and which are best redirected elsewhere.

Much as he liked Ogatsu, and even though his family's roots run deep in the area, with his wife coming from the town next door, he does not expect to make his home there again. His family, which also includes his mother and two daughters, are keen to move elsewhere.

"What is for sure is that I'm not living here again," he said.

Those helping to feed Mr Hiroshi and his colleagues are mostly young people, each of whom is spending a week volunteering for Peace Boat, one of several NGOs engaged in relief efforts. Home for the volunteers are the scores of tents in a university field in the nearby city of Ishinomaki, which also suffered terrible damage in the tsunami.

Kenji Yasuda, 22, a politics student from Yokohama, volunteered because he felt many people in parts of Japan not directly affected by the earthquake and tsunami were moving on too quickly.

The death toll is now more than 12,000 and is expected to eventually reach more than 18,000 people.

"People in Tokyo, especially young people, they're back to living their original life," he said.

"They donated money, but now they're buying their own clothes and even playing on slot machines. They are losing the impact of it.

"But by being here I can keep the memory of it fresh. I think that I have to do something. I have to contribute."

Another volunteer, Tomoki Murata, 21, a student, said it was important the Japanese people "helped each other".

"The next time it could be us in Tokyo," he said.