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Japan: Hoping for miracles

The only thing that matches the scale of the destruction caused by the tsunami in north-eastern Japan is the size of the problem it has created.

In an instant, half a million people were made homeless by the giant waves that smashed into the coastline; a wall of water travelling at 500 miles per hour, driven by the seventh most powerful earthquake ever recorded.

Only the people and buildings on high ground survived. The tsunami alarms helped, saving thousands of lives as terrified residents fled to the hilltops even as the ground shook beneath them. Ten days on, many of them have not come down.

People with no belongings, no money and nowhere to go

In every town on the coast, there are thousands of them. People with no belongings, no money and nowhere to go. They cram into evacuation centres, mark out their patches on the floor with cardboard barriers, and wait. But no-one seems to know what they are waiting for.

In what is left of the town of Minimisanriku, they wander numbly out of the evacuation centre, gathering on the hillsides to survey the devastation before them. Others huddle together inside for warmth; the temperature has been dropping below freezing at night for almost a week. There is no end in sight.

“We have no idea when we will leave here, or where we will go,” one young mother tells me, as she clutches her infant daughter in Minimisanriku’s largest evacuation centre.  When I ask how the child is coping, she sighs. “It’s really upsetting her, living here with so many people around all the time,” she says.

Down the road in the local school, the teachers don’t know what to do. The education authority’s headquarters were destroyed in the tsunami, and many of the staff are missing, presumed dead. There is no one left to advise the school on when, or if it should reopen.

“We’ll have a meeting on the 24th and 25th to see who is left,” the headmaster says. “The teachers can talk with the children and see how they are coping.”

Meanwhile, in what is left of the streets, the only movement comes from the search and rescue teams, who spend their days hoping for miracles and pulling bodies from the debris. The twisted metal and splintered wood stretches for kilometres, following the course of the river the town was built upon as it winds its way inland.

Entire towns washed away by the sea

It is the same along the whole north-eastern coast. Entire towns complete with supermarkets, roads, fast-food restaurants and thousands of homes have been washed away by the sea. Even as you stand amongst the wreckage, breathing the smell of stagnant tsunami water and decay, what has happened here is scarcely comprehensible.

It all seems like a strange, apocalyptic dream. From the grand piano standing a pool of black tsunami-water to the heron-like bird picking its way carefully through the carnage as if it were trespassing, the place seems somehow unreal.

But it is not a dream. For the residents of these towns, it is a living nightmare, in which the only priority is survival. It will take this part of Japan a very long time to wake up.

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