Despite the dire situation, residents are beginning to see a future thanks to NGOs, local governments and volunteers

Report from British volunteer Alice Brennan on her experience in Ishinomaki last week.

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Last week I travelled to Ishinomaki with 600 other volunteers from Peace Boat to take part in the cleanup efforts and to work in the soup kitchens and refugee centres. Driving through the streets my initial impression of the town was that all of the houses were broken and filthy. Mud and broken possessions littered the streets, battered cars were rammed at sickening angles into buildings that were barely still standing. So many houses are still uninhabitable; structurally damaged and caked in toxic sludge. The mud and debris are both a physical and psychological barrier to recovery. Many residents of the town could only express hopelessness at the enormity of the task in front of them. The problems are truly horrific, and progress is slow. Two months on, recovery has not really begun and many of the towns are still in a state of emergency. We found out just how bad it was when we were sent to start the cleanup efforts.

Ibarazu, a region of Ishinomaki town, was once home to a fish processing plant. After the tsunami hit, 17,000 tonnes of fish in various states of preservation were dumped on the town, and for 2 months they have been left to rot. We volunteers were sent to pick them up. Our first assignment was the front garden of a woman’s house where 2 tonnes of stinking, maggot ridden fish were piled up just feet from her front door. We had to fight past our urge to vomit and pick all of these fish up by hand, bag them up and load them onto a truck. Over three days, 65 volunteers did nothing but move fish. At the end, exhausted, we had still only removed 1% of the fish in Ishinomaki.

Ishinomaki is slowly moving from the emergency phase to the rebuilding phase, but this is sadly not the case in other towns. In Ogatsu, north east of Ishinomaki, Peace Boat runs a soup kitchen for the refugee centre. The town was completely devastated, in the truest sense of the word, on March 11th. Of 1,200 houses in the valley, not a single one is left standing. The buildings on top of the hill are currently serving as overcrowded refugee centres. People are still dependent on our aid. It will be many many years before this town can be habitable again.

Despite the dire situation in Tohoku, residents are beginning to see a future in that town thanks to the tireless work and enthusiasm of the NGOs, local governments and volunteers. Newly cleaned houses and streets, messages of thanks, hugs and tears showed us all how important it is that NGOs like Peace Boat are able to continue to work in this area. Slowly, things are getting better, but the people of Tohoku have so much further to go and they cannot possibly face this alone. We have committed to be here for the next two years, until the task of recovery can be handled without outside help. We deeply appreciate your continued support, which will only become more important as the disaster fades from the headlines and the rest of the world moves on.

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