9 Nov 2011

It’s not just mud

Hi-viz jackets, hard-hats, gloves and overalls – the international brigade’s ready to deploy again in Ishiomaki, for another day’s cleaning up.A huddle of rucksacks and plastic bottles of cold Japanese tea; the packed lunches, left on the cracked doorstep of a ruined pagoda-style house.

And close by they’re already hard at it by the time we arrive to film. Today’s task – clearing roadside drains of mud, stones and all the endless variety of tsunami debris.

And they’re here from all over the world. Colin arrived from Canada in the July heat. Stefan’s from Edinburgh. ‘Hippy’ works with a Norwegian offshore company and is based in Australia. His five-on, five-off weekly work pattern means he commutes in to volunteer every – yup you’ve got it – five weeks.

Jamie El-Banna from London, came up here in June from English-teaching in Osaka. He doesn’t see himself returning to teaching in a hurry:

“Well at first I was kind of on my own. But I started blogging, people kept getting in contact and here we are.”

Even as we drive down this morning from Minamisanriku to the north, a twitter follower was referencing @jamie_elbanna:

“I’m joining the relief effort in a few weeks. There’s a guy giving up his life to help, go and interview HIM.”

By the time that hit the twitter time-line we had already been in contact with Jamie and were on our way south to meet.

Jamie El-Banna’s about the nearest thing you’ll find to a leader of the group of clean-up volunteers called “It’snotjustmud.”

That name nods to the fact that all this muck and debris is not just mud but the wreckage of individual and family lives.

And here in Ishinomaki more than anywhere else. Quite simply, more people were killed here than anywhere else – 3278 – and 688 people are missing, presumed dead, almost eight months on from the 11 March disaster.

Yet in Ishinomaki you don’t see the wholesale destruction so dramatically revealed elsewhere. It is more a case of individual houses wrecked, next-door left untouched, such was the peculiarity of the wave.

But you can see too, why there’s still work for foreign volunteers. You will find areas here – schools, graveyards – hardly touched by any clean-up operation.

There’s criticism here that the mayor was overwhelmed, not enough has been done, the town’s been left behind:

“There’s certainly confusion here alright,” says Jamie El-Banna.

‚ÄúSome people want to move out, some don’t, people keep asking the authorities what’s going to happen? The whole thing’s still really unclear.”

Whilst that situation remains there will be work for foreign volunteers here for a long time to come.

You can follow Alex’s journey through tsunami-affected Japan on Twitter: @AlexTomo

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