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I decided to collect and take provisions to the victims of the March 11 Tohoku-Pacific Ocean Earthquake and the tsunami that struck in its wake came about after discussing the quality of reporting on the event by the European media with a friend. We both agreed that much of the news coming out of Japan, especially news about Tokyo, which was relatively unscathed, was either inaccurate or false. We both found it hard to believe that people were actually starving in some of the areas that had been hardest hit. This was, after all, Japan, one of the richest countries on earth, a country with an outstanding record of donating to other countries in times of need. Then we heard from someone who had been up to the north that people were suffering badly, that bureaucracy was getting in the way of relief, and that people were desperate for many of the basic items that we all took for granted. We had no way of knowing whether this was true or not, but we decided to go ahead anyway.

First of all I had to find a driver to help me take the provisions to the disaster area, and then I had to appeal for and collect whatever I could and buy what I could not collect. A friend volunteered to rent a truck and drive, so I started collecting provisions. I put up an appeal asking for contributions in Japanese and English on the notice board in my building. Almost every family in my apartment building contributed something. I quickly noticed that some things—rice, canned food, gas canisters and charcoal—were conspicuously absent; so I started buying them. Unfortunately these items are particularly heavy and, because of a surge in demand, finding them in the shops was extremely difficult. Then there was a limit on the amount one person could buy in each shop: consequently, I had to visit dozens of shops, some quite far away from where I live, to get enough provisions. Nevertheless, among other things, I managed to buy and carry home 50 kilos of rice and 25 gas canisters as well as six boxes of canned goods and charcoal. This was not only time-consuming, but also physically exerting and I began to worry that my knee might not hold out.

Two days before departure two problems arose: the volunteer driver was refused time off work to drive up to Minami Sanriku and the rental firm told me that I could only have the truck for 24 hours. At first, both problems looked insurmountable. Every rental agency I called responded negatively because “it was the moving season so nothing was available.” I pleaded and explained the reason I needed a vehicle, but my appeals were met with a smile and a shrug. Everyone I called and asked to drive up said that they would love to but that they already had plans for the weekend. I was running out of options when I remembered that one of my friends, Geoff England, had a driving license; so I call him. He immediately volunteered to drive and to rent a van, thus killing two birds with one stone, and we arranged to meet at the rental agency just before 6 pm on Saturday 2 April.

Meanwhile the things I was buying and the people in my apartment building were donating began to mount up, and I realized that they would not all fit in one van; so I started to call round once again. This time I managed to contact a Mr Arata who was working with an organization called OGA for Aid. He told me that he had room on his truck for more supplies and agreed to drive up with our van.

After Geoff, his wife Ayuko, and I picked up the van, we drove to Takadanobaba to pick up some of the things that Clive France, who was taking another van up north, could not fit in his van. Then we picked up Peter Blake, a professional photographer who had also volunteered to drive, and drove to my place to meet up with Arata-san and his team. We loaded the vehicles and set off at exactly 7.44 pm, stopping once before we left Tokyo to pick up Ana Shimabuku and the provisions she had collected.

Once out of Tokyo the road was practically empty, at least in the lanes heading north. The threat of radiation sickness certainly keeps people off the roads. We tanked up at every opportunity because we knew that once we got into the disaster area, there would be no gasoline available.

After we left the highway, driving became more difficult. We were in total darkness because there were no lights anywhere. We even passed through towns and villages that, although inhabited, looked deserted. It was a very strange feeling. Many of the roads we traveled were cracked and, despite the darkness, we could see damage to buildings all around. We left the towns behind and started to climb into the mountains on narrow and twisting roads that were in very poor condition. We started our descent and entered a world of destruction on a massive scale. At about 4 am we arrived at a road that was closed, and that was the road we needed to take. The guard told us that we would have to wait until 7 am for it to open, so we tried to find space to park—and that was very difficult because the whole area was covered in debris, the remains of what had once been a town were piled up everywhere we could see with the headlights.

Before we parked, however, a local man drove by, realized that we had brought provisions and offered to show us what he called a “shortcut” to the distribution center. Back up the mountain we went on roads steeper and narrower that the ones we had originally taken. Thirty minutes later, however, we arrived at Hotel Kanyo, a luxurious resort hotel that, apart from the two floors below ground level that out to see, had escaped major damage. It was 4.30 am and the temperature was below zero: we were freezing and tired, but we could not sleep for the cold. Around 6 am one of the staff brought us a cup of coffee. The inside of the cups were lined with plastic wrap because there was no running water to wash the cups with.

At around 6.30 am, Angela Ortiz from OGA for Aid, and aid agency organizing relief efforts in the area joined us in the lobby. She explained the situation and told us of the needs of the people. She said that the Japanese military was providing rice and drinking water, but that there huge shortages of just about everything else. People can survive on rice and water, but sooner or later, health problems kick in. What the people desperately needed were canned protein foods like fish, seafood, meat and chicken as well as canned vegetables and fruit. They also needed baby food, sanitary items, over-the-counter medication, fruit and energy drinks, toys and a whole host of other things that we normally take for granted but the people living in the refugee centers could not get.

Angela also told us some horrific tales of desperation in the area. She spoke about a minshuku (bed and breakfast) in a hamlet called Yoriki at which more than 20 people had been trapped for two weeks because the roads had been destroyed. There was no electricity, gas nor running water and no means of communicating with the outside world. In desperation they had put up flags in an attempt to attract the attention of the Japanese military helicopters carrying our search and rescue missions and delivering provisions. The people trapped there were on the verge of starvation when volunteers from OGA for Aid found them.

Angela also told us the story of So-kun, a 12-year-old boy who traveled in our van from the distribution center to Utatsu Junior High School that was function as a refugee center for 470 people. After the earthquake struck, he and his mother managed to escape to a school on a hill. When the tsunami raged past in the valley below, he could see bodies being swept up the valley. He lost his dog and house but, fortunately, he had survived.

After we had been briefed by Angela, we unloaded our provisions and set out to see the damage in the light of day. I had read all the reports in the newspapers and seen all the images on television, but what I saw with my own eyes was much worse than anything I was prepared for. The town of Minami Sanriku and its surroundings looked like the aftermath of a nuclear war. Very few buildings had survived intact; there was rubbish and refuse where houses, hospitals, schools and shops had stood. Bridges were battered and broken; railway lines were ripped off their pilings and lay twisted like strings of wire; lamp posts were bent, buckled and snapped in two; and even the road surfaces had been destroyed. Wrecked cars, buses, tractors, and ships were everywhere, some on the roofs of the buildings that still stood, others high up on the hillsides or up trees. But the most disturbing sight was that of the personal belongings—photos, notebooks, pens and pencils, CD players and the like—scattered among the debris or hanging from trees—clothes, sheets, blankets and futons—on either side of the tsunami-ravaged valleys in a macabre caricature of festive decorations.

We returned to the distribution center and then drove to Utatsu Junior High School, where OGA for Aid had organized an hour of games for the children to celebrate a birthday. The children were happy for an hour at least, but the elderly did not have anything to cheer about. Some sat around in small groups on the mattresses on which they slept, others came and went, but I noticed one old man sitting alone. He never moved a muscle the hour we were there. His eyes looked straight ahead, but he was not seeing anything in that gymnasium: he was surely looking into the past. I had to struggle to keep back the tears for I did not want to upset any of those unfortunate people who have lost everything except their dignity. They have been living in appalling conditions since March 11. They have no electricity, gas or running water. There are a few kerosene heaters here and there; so it must be absolutely freezing at night.

It is difficult for me to come to terms with what I saw in Minami Sanriku. The violence and havoc wreaked upon an unsuspecting community in the space of a few minutes by the unstoppable forces of nature is not easy to comprehend. I was not there the moment nature struck; so I will never be able to understand the fear and shock of those who were. But now that I have met and spoken to some of the survivors I will never be the same again.

The survivors will need help for some time, so those of us who took provisions at the weekend are resolved to continue delivering them. We are planning our next trip for April 16 and so far we have arranged for two vehicles. If we can get financial support of any kind, we will be able to take more. We are also looking for Japanese companies that could help us buy products like toilet paper, gas canisters and the like in bulk. We gratefully appreciate any support we can get.

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