A continuation of volunteer experiences in Japanese disaster zone.
|Another Day, Another Flea.
It`s the hottest time of the year and I`m heading back into Japan`s earthquake/tsunami zone wondering what`s in store for me this time. I find myself put in a group affectionately known as `the DaniBusters,` `Dani` being a generic term for mites and fleas of innumerable types. Not sure if I am too excited about this yet since I have enough trouble with my own cat`s fleas.
The first day people are clearly exhausted from all the overnight travel so we are taken on a bus tour of the worst it parts of IshinoMaki. It`s changed a lot since I was here in April. Then it was a scene from hell cluttered with thousands of collapsed buildings and their collapsed lives. Now a lot of the debris has been shifted and it simply looks like someone has tidied up hell a little. The bus stops in a car park high above the worst hit area which is sort of perched on a wall running down the side of the mountain into what was the town. The devastation stretches as far as the eye can see. During the disaster many people gathered in this high place to view the tsunami rolling over their lives, not realizing that it was going to rear up to a greater height than where they were standing. They were swept away. We place flowers on the ground and stand silently.
Our first instructions next day. `Try to understand that `DaniBusters` has two purposes. First, the refugee centers are full of these bugs which are not only making the victims lives miserable (imagine being torn apart by fleas everyday) but extremely hazardous to health. The second purpose is to help pull people out of their misery so communicate, greet in a loud voice and smile, smile and smile.` I`m a little encouraged by this since that`s my job back in the safe world of elementary school.
The actual cleaning is highly systemized hard labor. We pair up and take turns hoovering and spraying mattresses and blankets for hour after hour. The temperature in the rooms is around 37 degrees and we stop every 30 minutes for water. Most of us consume four litres a day minimum. The old folks hover around the area in a state of panic trying to take their blanket or cushion back which frequently screws up the system. Can you blame them? If all I had left in the world was a blanket I wouldn`t want a bunch of oddly smiling people losing it. Finally lunch time arrives and all twelve of us just lie on the ground and sweat. We are covered in flies but too tired to brush them off.
The flea work is done and now we have to clean the classrooms the refugees are trying to create homes in. It`s an invasion into a world already too burdened with grief. The older folks often just stare blankly at mindless tV programs or newspapers while we work round them. We take photographs of the position of -every- single object in the room whether its a coat hanger or a half drunk bottle of coca cola. Each object is picket up with the reverence of a religious artifact and placed in the corridor. We don`t need to be told to work this way. It`s just appropriate. We rip up the tatami mats and clean out the deposits of sand and insects left by the tsunami. Nobody stops when we are told to get ready to go home. This is our room and nobody is going to tell us when to stop if there is still a speck of mould or dirt left. By the end of the day the place is transformed. The next few months there doesn`t seem so harrowing for the refugees because it smells better and it seems like they haven`t been completely forgotten.
Our group becomes quite famous since we seem to have the knack of lifting people spirits. Many supervisors commented that we achieved in a day reactions other groups took a week or two to engender. Most credit goes to one of our members who has done volunteer ER work in disaster zones all over the world. He knew how to reach out to the suffering and we just followed his lead, although I must say I am no slouch at making funny puppets out of inflated surgical gloves. ...
This is my last long stay for a while and I sit in the bus pondering on the nature of disasters and suffering. Initially it`s a big thing but it metamorphs into small details that are less tangible than smashed buildings and cars. Fleas become important and deadly business. I am sitting in a supermarket rest corner drinking a can of juice. A forty year old women introduces herself and thanks me even though I am not and never will wear volunteer insignia in public. She is a teacher living in temporary housing (read rabbit hutch) with her husband and son. I sense she needs to talk and cry with someone she will never meet again so I wait and listen. Her husband comes to help her away a few minutes later.
I am hitch hiking a short distance for some purpose I forget. The driver is cheerful and resiliant. Her daughter survived being in a car that was lifted and spun for two kilometers by the tsunami, after which she escaped and swam to safety. She was found alive and well but with all her hair ripped off by the debris.
As usual the story is within the stories.