“The only thing missing from these pictures are bullet holes” said my father.
“So you’ve been to hell and back” was my mother’s response.
Last weekend, I went to see them after visiting Japan’s Tohoku region on the Pacific-side where the recent earthquake and tsunami caused major destructions. They saw my photos and film. My father was referring to his experiences during the World War II where he survived the US air-raids and lived under the ruins.
A group of leaders from national and regional transport unions were in the region on 12 and 13 May. We travelled 1000km on a coach and visited places such as Miyako, Watari, Shinchi-cho and Sohma. Meetings with local unions took place in several cities. I joined this mission as my federation made a contribution to their relief fund and is making an international solidarity appeal.
The scars of the disasters remained in all places and the rubble untouched. From the windows of our bus, we saw miles and miles of towns in complete destruction. And they stand right next to communities that were not affected at all. Sometimes, such scenes are mixed within the same town. How did tsunami wipe-out some buildings and others not?
A train was left as derailed in Miyako. A crane in the port of Sohma was bent and tilted by the waves and a ship remained stranded. Sendai Airport is only partially reopened. Thousands of vehicles have turned into scrap metal.
There was silence in the bus as we observed these scenes.
So were the towns quiet, I felt. Streets are cleaned-up and cars are running again but it is not lively at all.
You can hear the sound of the wind. Fresh green leaves were shining and some cherry trees in blossoms. After all, this is the northern part of Japan. Spring comes late.
The local unionists that I spoke to said quite openly: “We stress how bonds and ties are important in a situation like this but the crucial point is its practicality. As unions, we have not worked with the NGOs in the past and so we are learning things as we build our relationship. Our members want to do volunteer work but there is nothing in our CBA to give them such leave. So we can’t organise that systematically. And to be blunt” he continued, “mass mobilisation of volunteers alone will not rebuild our communities”.
Everybody knows that it will take many years for some recovery of this region. And what do we mean exactly by a recovery and in particular its human aspect? In the aftermath of the earthquake that struck the city of Kobe in 1995, majority of the missing bodies were found in a week. So the survivors could start looking into the future after saying good-bye to their loved ones. In this current case, more than 10,000 people are still missing; many swallowed by the tsunami and dragged into the ocean. People just can’t get over it.
A colleague of mine said: “Let’s face it. We are crammed in a small country that is hit by uncontrollable natural disasters regularly. We learn to help each other in our upbringing because the risks are high. Some Westerners were surprised that looting and riots did not take place after the earthquake but we can’t afford to live under such ‘individualism’”. The flip-side of this valid argument is that such culture can also be a hotbed for totalitarianism but I did not say that.
Some are using the modern technology cleverly. In one village, the chief gathered all the survivors and began to share water, food, clothes and shelters. Then they discussed how they can relocate themselves to somewhere safer and higher than the flat-land that they used to live. They found a hill and decided who can live where. Then they invited a local government officer and advised him of these decisions. The officer replied: “All sounds great but we don’t have a budget to build the water-pipe lines”. In response, the chief told his youngsters to make a plea on the internet. A few days later, water-pipes were donated by a company, free of charge. I heard similar stories like this during my stay.
On our second day of the journey, the sun came out. The sky was blue. I decided to include that in my photos. A tragic scene and a beauty of nature in one picture. As much as forces of the nature can destroy you and your life, it can also heal your wound and give you hope. If people can accept that, together with a little help from their friends, they could start moving to the right direction, I felt.