Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Two months after tsunami

Ishinomaki, Japan (CNN) -- The grandfather sits perched on a hill, staring down at the shell of an elementary school. He's been here every single day, spending hours staring down at the school, ever since the tsunami swept away and killed 74 of the 108 schoolchildren of Ishinomaki Okawa Elementary School. Two of those young victims were his grandchildren.

"They left in the morning saying 'Itekimas' (we're leaving)," he says. "I didn't say goodbye to them. Now I'll never hear 'hello' from them."

He wipes his eyes with his gloves, the dirt from the heavy machinery nearby smearing on his weathered face. The machines have been sifting through the rubble from the school, crushing it to be moved out of the area. The man, who declined to share his name with CNN, says the clean-up has been going on for weeks.

But this grandfather hasn't been able to leave this hill, even as there's progress removing the debris.

He stares down at a picture of the children on his mobile phone and says, "I want to stay here to be close to them. There's no joy in life now. I feel so alone."

Just a few feet away, a stack of flowers mark a memorial for the children. A teddy bear and Japanese anime cards are tucked in under the bouquets.

Inside the school, remnants of the children's lives lie stacked in a classroom. Teddy bears, colored markers, baseball gloves and tennis shoes have been dusted of the debris, though they all bear the stains of the muddy water that claimed their young owners.

Two women duck in and out of the room, just two of the many mothers who make a daily pilgrimage through these haunted halls.

The neighborhood monk prays at the school daily, though there are few who hear him, except, perhaps, the stolen souls of the children.

Two months after Japan's historic 9.0 earthquake and tsunami, signs of both progress and paralysis span the 200 square miles of destroyed coastline. The progress is coming in the form of clearing some debris, though that's spotty at best. The paralysis is primarily emotional, like the parents who say they can't comprehend losing so many young lives and how to keep living without them.

But there is also physical paralysis in reconstruction and recovery, the result of the devastation's scope and the large number of victims.

In half of the town of Ishinomaki, it still looks as if the tsunami came through yesterday, not two months ago. As far as the eye can see near Ishinomaki's city hospital, little debris has budged. Ships still sit scattered on top of houses like a disaster movie. There are very few residents wandering through here.

Those tsunami victims are in evacuation centers. An estimated 130,000 people throughout the disaster zone, from both the tsunami and the Fukushima Nuclear Plant crisis, have nowhere to live. Temporary housing is going up across the region, but at a painfully slow pace, evacuees say.

"We can't live a normal life here," says Hiromitsu Suzuki, who lost his home in the tsunami. "We're all frustrated, both the adults and children. We understand it was an enormous earthquake and tsunami. But still, we need the government to end this situation."

Suzuki says he has no idea when he, his parents, his sister and her three children will be able to move into temporary housing. Frustrated with living in a gymnasium with more than 100 people, Suzuki broke down as many cardboard boxes as he could find and built walls around their blankets, creating some privacy. His mother used cardboard to section off a small pantry. They built a small toy box for the children. Suzuki put up a calendar so the family wouldn't lose track of the days.

Suzuki's father, 69-year-old Yoshichi, says he's frustrated as well. But he still has hope life will improve, marked by a sign of spring in his houseplants. The tsunami washed the plants away with their house, but the family found four of them in the rubble. Those four plants are now starting to bloom.

"They were washed away by the tsunami, but still survived," says Yoshichi Suzuki. "And they're blooming with flowers now. Just like the plants, we must go on and live."

Back at Ishinomaki Okawa Elementary, the grandfather on the hill hasn't budged. The construction crews have paused to get lunch and the school grounds fall silent. The grandfather says he's been told he must go on and keep living. But how, he asks. Someone tell me how.

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