Monday, March 28, 2011

A report from the disaster zone

Footage from Matsuzakiozaki city, 18th March 2011 (video by Peace Winds Japan)

When I was involved in producing the 'Peace Not War Japan' album, I worked pretty closely with people at Peace Boat (PB), East Asia's biggest NPO. Members of the PB team are currently working in the disaster zone in Eastern Japan as part of relief efforts for affected people.

Below is a report from one of the regions by a member of the PB team working there, reproduced with permission of the translator Meri Joyce. Many thanks for letting me repost, Meri, and best of luck to your staff and volunteers working there.


Peace Boat’s advance assistance team (including staff members Kobayashi Shingo, Ueshima Yasuhiro and Ueno Yoshinori) was joined yesterday by six more members, then early this morning four more including a professional photographer and a chef. We are now working with a total of 13 people on our team here.

At the moment, Shingo is working to run the secretariat of the volunteer centre set up by the Social Welfare Council. He's currently taking on the responsibilities of 3-4 people worth, including hosting and briefing different NGOs, NPOs and individuals coming in, dividing up areas for people to work in, booking and so on. He is now working very closely with full trust of the Social Welfare Council.

Yasuhiro is coordinating volunteer staff to help prepare meals at evacuation centres, deliver these meals by truck to survivors staying outside of the centres (people still at their own homes, living in private centres etc), and helping cater to affected areas where official support is not yet able to reach.

Today they put out some food that was left over in front of the city office, and amongst a huge queue 200 meals disappeared in an instant. Amongst the crowd, a mother with a young child told us that 'we haven't had anything to eat. All I've been able to give my child to eat was snow.' This is the situation now, even two weeks since the disaster. The team is now also working to clean the evacuation centres, clear debris and mud, make the roads functional etc.

From now, we will stay at the evacuation centres and be side by side with the survivors to learn about their latent needs, the situation in the different evacuation centres, and to deal with issues as they come up. This will also serve to prepare the work we can give to volunteers who will be arriving from this weekend.

We will also start to clear the huge amounts of mud in the evacuation centres and throughout the town.

At the moment, the hygiene situation in the evacuation centres is slowly but definitely getting worse, and there are already cases of influenza and noro virus.

Also, the temporary portable toilets are not able to keep up with the vacuum, and many are overflowing. Some evacuation centres do not even have such toilets, and so people are forced to go to the toilet anywhere outside. This leads to further deterioration of the hygiene situation both in the centres and throughout the town, which we have to urgently work to improve.

At the same time, we are also laying the foundations for a system and environment capable of hosting the many volunteers who will be arriving from this weekend.

To be honest, until a few days ago we really didn't even know where to start and what to do, but as the days go by it is becoming clearer, information is being collected more and more, and it feels like we are able to get more of an idea of what we need to do. We are also being greatly encouraged by the strength of the people here.

We visited some old women sleeping on blankets in classrooms at a school that is now an evacuation centre, and while making small talk also asked about their lives at the centre. Just one look shows how tough their situation is, but when we asked what they needed one woman told us 'well, even though I am old, I am still a woman, so we would like hand mirrors or foundation. But actually my skin is really good at the moment!' Although she had lost her home and all her belongings to the tsunami, she was still able to make such jokes.

The children are inventing games like we have never seen before, using tires or rubble lying around - although of course this is dangerous.

They are also making jokes saying 'you smell like farts!' when they are surrounded by the smell of rotting fish that is throughout the town. When I walked past a young boy and his father at an evacuation centre, I heard the son say 'Dad, gambatte (do your best.) It's not always going to be like this.'

Of course in such a situation where life and death is so close to each other, everything isn't so nice as that.

Yesterday, the dead body of a young child was found at an evacuation centre. This is even ten days after the disaster. The debris and mud throughout the town hasn't yet been cleared, but as it is there will no doubt be many more bodies found.

As the days go by we hear more and more ambulance sirens in the town.

This is the reality here.

When you look at the situation it really makes you want to be blindfolded, to pretend you haven't noticed. But even within this situation people are living with such strength, and we are reminded of this every day.

We are thinking really hard about what it means to live, what it means to have a life.

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