After a long 7-hour ride from Tokyo, we arrived at Ishinomaki Senshu University at 7am, where green tents lined up in straight neat rows, and scattered colourful tents dotted across the spacious fields. The green tents belong to the Self Defence Force of Japan, as we see uniformed soldiers patrolling around and preparing for their rescue missions. The colourful tents belong to various volunteer groups who have bravely decided to stay put in these affected regions so that they could lend a hand to the locals as much as possible. I stood afar from these tents and observed the people walking around, changing their clothes and brushing their teeth. I could not help but give them a salute. I admire their selfless spirits and courage in engaging in such tough missions.

As for our group from WAVOC (the official volunteer organization in Waseda University), we had to wait for an hour to be delegated our task for the day. In the previous trip, the WAVOC team was sent to clear and clean up classrooms in a high school. This time, we were sent to a shrine. As Golden Week (a week of consecutive public holidays in the first week of May) is around the corner, the locals have decided to organize a matsuri (festival) in the midst of such distraught times, in a brave first attempt to raise the spirits of the town. If we could manage to clear and clean up the vicinity of the shrine, we would be able to bring a smile, even if it is a wry smile, to the people who had suffered from hunger, fatigue and trauma for the past month. It would definitely be worth our effort.

And so we set off again from Ishinomaki Senshu University towards the shrine. Along the way, the sceneries began to morph, almost dramatically. Houses destroyed; roofs dilapidated; cars (if they could still be called one) wrecked into various shapes and sizes strewn all over the place- on rooftops, piled on top of another car and stuck in the walls. Debris piled up like little hills. It was almost like a scene taken out of a movie. Everything seemed so surreal. The effects of the earthquake and tsunami were witnessed as real as they could get. I could almost imagine the dreaded scene of tsunami waves of 10 metres, 20 metres crashing into the town, picking cars away and toppling houses.

Our task was simple: Remove the huge “items” (deemed as waste/ rubbish) first, followed by the smaller items littered all over the place. The items classified under “huge waste” outrageously defied our conventional definition and assumption. These “huge items” referred to fallen lamp posts, detached car bonnets and other mechanical parts, roofs of devastated houses and sacred stones the shrine. Carrying each of these “huge items” required the combined strength of three to four young men, and by the end of the first two hours, we were mostly physically drained.

The “small items” were equally draining, albeit in mental form. We were told to clear the debris, and remove all “small rubbish” from the ground, and so we were basically picking up whatever that does not belong to the soil and greenery and throwing them into huge plastic bags. But no matter how physically exhausted we were, we could not help but realize what we were holding in our hands, deeming them as rubbish and throwing them away. The “small rubbish” hidden under the fallen structures and scattered all over, consisted of children toys, CDs, family photographs, shoes, clothes and other personal belongings. Who gave us the right to deem these items as “rubbish” and discard them as we wish? These items belong to someone out there, probably someone living in a temporary evacuation centre now, or in a worse scenario, belonged to someone who used to live in the house, but fortunately or unfortunately dragged out by rescue teams a few weeks ago. Nevertheless, as situations remain as they are now, there was little we could do but clear the ground.

If I could add some optimism into the description of the god-forsaken piles of debris (I cannot even bring myself to use the word “town” anymore). This is how I would describe it: Fully blossomed sakura trees with branches dangling over the piles of wreckage and debris. Sakura (cherry blossoms) signify a new beginning, and the sakura trees overlook the wreckage with a smile of encouragement, showing a glimpse of renewed hope. Underneath the insurmountable amount of debris lie countless of lost memories entrapped in a myriad of forms, all awaiting their owners to claim them back.

After lunch, we were invited to listen to a little talk by the owner of the shrine, Guji-san, his daughter and a member of the town council of Ishinomaki, Sato-san. “When a disaster strikes, run for your life. Save your own life first, before thinking about others.” However selfish it might sound at first, the next line from Guji-san explained it all. “Those people who had perished in this disaster were people who waited for others, or those who tried to save others.”

Guji-san all along had an agreement with his family to gather at a certain place whenever a disaster struck, but their priority is always to ensure their own safety first, before heading to the gathering place. Thanks to that, his whole family was spared from any casualties. “Never underestimate a tsunami. A tsunami of 30cm can hinder you from walking; a tsunami of 60cm will take your legs away. Now, imagine a tsunami of 10 and 20 metres.”

Sato-san was next to speak. The moment he opened his mouth, we could virtually hear him swallowing his tears. He then admitted that he was greatly saddened by the disaster but at the same time touched by the efforts of the volunteer rescue teams. He is in charge of accounting for the number of deaths and missing for the town. He described how he had carried bodies of little children for days, yet so numbed by it that no tears could flow. He was originally given 10 minutes to speak, yet he just could not stop. And we all had our eyes and ears locked on him. This is how much he wanted to share his experience with us, and this is how much we wanted to listen, learn and understand.

Guji-san’s daughter was last to talk, and she spoke about how the children had to suffer with limited amount of food and water and had to endure the freezing conditions of winter without sufficient clothing and electricity. Throughout her whole talk, we could see tears encircling in her eyes, yet she was unwilling to succumb to letting out a drop of it. The first two days after the disaster, each person had half a banana and half a cup of water for one day. She had to sacrifice her own to give her child. I shudder even at the thought of it. I then looked up at her and her father and Sato-san. I was close to tears.

My volunteer effort with WAVOC might have ended there and then, but the epilogue of which is what is the most important- to relay the message to all our friends. A disaster does not end when the number of deaths or amount of lost property is accounted for, nor does it end when the disaster-struck town is revived. Every disaster brings a story and a lesson to learn. Our job is to tell this story to more people. By relaying this story, we might not be able to prevent a similar disaster from repeating itself, but we could inspire hope and optimism in people, and unite all of us as one. Those who have survived this disaster have become stronger, those who have heard the stories and learnt the lessons would become stronger too. We must not leave people ignorant and oblivious about these inevitable facts of life. Let’s spread the story.