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Hope and defiance among Japan's tsunami homeless

world Updated: Mar 18, 2011 09:51 IST

AFP
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Less than a week after watching his home get swept away by the tsunami that tore into Japan's northeast coast, Shiroyuchi Kumagai is ready to reclaim his plot of earth from the sea.

"It's my land. I've been here all my life," the 83-year-old told AFP as he surveyed the rubble of Kesennuma. "I want to rebuild."

Kumagai was born and raised in the village of Katahama, one of a series of settlements that made up the sprawling town before last Friday's monster 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the tsunami that followed.

On Thursday afternoon a small crowd gathered round him as he emerged from the edges of the debris clutching a muddy carrier bag.

Inside was a binder of certificates relating to Katahama's village committee.

"I used to do the accounts for them," he said. "They'll need these."

At the moment, there is no village for the committee to serve.

Instead, its remains are picked over by teams of Japanese troops, part of the 100,000-strong force mobilised by Prime Minister Naoto Kan for the country's worst tragedy since World War II.

Nationally more than 16,600 are dead or missing, with more than a third of them known to have perished.

There appears to be little chance they are searching for survivors in Katahama among the 20 or so villagers that locals said were still officially missing.

One soldier, who did not want to be named, deflected a question on whether it was a body search in Kesennuma.

"I've not really been told very much," he said.

He and his colleagues spent Thursday afternoon turning over what is left of crumpled homes, where the everyday and the unbelievable lie strewn in stark relief among the mud.

A pair of nail clippers or an unbroken cup sit incongruously near the top half of a traditional style house, torn from the ground floor and dumped on its roof.

Closer to the sea and the ferocity of the wave that bit into the coast is even more apparent: steel railway tracks ripped up and buckled to stand like a fence; a car folded in two; huge chunks of Tarmac stacked where a road used to run.

The infrastructure work required to fix this town -- one of possibly scores that were wrecked by the massive waves -- is immense.

And that work has not even begun.

Refugees like Kikuo Nomura are sheltering in a community centre, where he says they have no electricity, no gas and no running water.

"We have torches for the night time and we wrap ourselves in blankets," he said. Overnight temperatures have hovered around freezing for the last few nights, made worse by a biting wind that brings snow flurries.

Nomura, 70, described how he was at home with his wife in Katahama when the quake struck last Friday.

"There was an announcement (on the network of speakers run by the town) telling us: 'Get away, get away, a tsunami is coming'.

"We got up on that hill and we watched the house get swept away.

"I can't tell you how it felt. I don't have the words."

Nomura, who has lived his whole life in a place where he says "everyone knows each other", spent Thursday afternoon among the flotsam and jetsam of his village.

"I'm looking for things. I had lots of tools. But I don't know where my house is. It's all confused in my head."

Despite the overwhelming horror of last week's events, Nomura is unbowed.

"I need to talk to the children, but I have to rebuild," he said.

"Maybe not just here, maybe up in the hills a little, but what else can I do? What else is there to do?

"You have to stay hopeful; it's not for me, it's for the young people." Kumagai agreed.

"The young people will have to decide at the end of the day, but if I can rebuild, I will," he said.