Ishinomaki, Japan (AFP) March 31, 2011
Thousands of families are missing loved ones almost three weeks after a powerful earthquake and tsunami devastated towns and lives along Japan's northeast coast.
One of them is the family of this AFP reporter.
This is the story of Takako Suzuki, 67, who is still searching for a sign of life from her daughter, this reporter's sister, amid the ruins of the small fishing port she has called home all her life.
Every evening Suzuki slips under the quilt of her futon shortly after sunset around 7:00 pm because there is nothing to do in the pitch darkness. This district of Ishinomaki still has no electricity, tap water or gas.
"I don't read newspapers, I don't listen to the radio. They are talking about horrible things," Suzuki, who has been a widow for years, says as she prepares to sleep on the second floor of her house.
"Why do I have to know more when I've seen enough myself?"
She wakes up as the sun rises. She goes downstairs to clear rubble left by the tsunami that smashed into the ground floor on March 11 and heaped tragedy on this quiet town in Miyagi prefecture.
It was a day when in Miyagi a man felt his mother's hand slip out of his tight grasp, three children watched their mother being washed away, and an elderly couple vanished with their grandchild, their three bodies later found.
Suzuki clears the debris inside her house, which was hit by a wave that at this point was two metres (six feet) high, against the sound of a helicopter overhead that is carrying away newly retrieved bodies.
Mud covers family photos and other keepsakes, and the smell of rotten seawater with fish and kelp fills the air.
In the neighbourhood, overturned cars and ships lie scattered on the roads and in other people's gardens. People walk under a car that is stuck between two buildings like a bridge.
Suzuki's most important mission is not to clear up rubble but to find her 41-year-old daughter, who has been missing since the day of the disaster.
Suzuki was in the city of Sendai, some 60 kilometres (37 miles) away from her home town, when the 9.0-magnitude quake struck beneath the sea floor.
She managed to return home on the afternoon of the following day, having shared a taxi from Sendai to a place near Ishinomaki and then walked through knee-deep water amid floating bodies for seven hours.
When she got home, her daughter was not in the house they have shared.
"I failed to die," Suzuki says as she ponders her pain.
Throwing away her tatami mats, fridge, TV sets and furniture means nothing compared with the agony of searching for her daughter, she says.
Whenever she spots earth-moving machinery clearing a mountain of rubble to the side of a road, she trails it. "Please, please do it gently. My daughter may be in there," she asks the driver.
The body of another, elderly woman was indeed found in the debris of a nearby supermarket.
Many who are searching for their loved ones have experienced the painful process of feeling their hopes whittled down slowly, day by day.
They initially hope that the person is unhurt, then they think he or she isn't home or is at a shelter, or has been injured and hospitalised.
After they learn that the person's name is not on the lists of inpatients at hospitals, they are left with the hope the person is in a coma and therefore cannot be contacted. Finally, their wish becomes only to find the person's body.
Families visit makeshift morgues to find the last thing they want to see.
There are lists of bodies, all numbered.
Some are identified by the name on the papers they carried, others are anonymous and described only in sparse phrases such as "a female in her 30s. Height about 160cm" or "about three years old".
When you give the police the number of the body you want to see, you are shown its pictures.
If you think it is the person you are looking for, you are led into a hall where rows of bodies are laid out in plain-wood coffins or plastic bags, with the smell of burning incense sticks in the air.
People weep as they find a person they have cared for dearly or shared their lives with, now a stiff body with drenched hair, naked and in a blanket following their autopsy.
In the nearby town of Higashimatsushima, a young couple sits by a coffin, which seems too big for their dead baby inside. They are in utter silence, staring vacantly into space.
A line of relatives passes another coffin, and one says to the lifeless body inside: "The way you held out is great!"
Identical memos, handwritten in large red letters, are left on two coffins lying side by side.
The notes read, "Please make sure the daughter is buried next to her mother". They are both signed by a man who has identified the corpses as those of his wife and daughter.
At a morgue in Ishinomaki, photos of hundreds of unidentified bodies are taped to big blue tarpaulins, visible to all who come.
Families are dumbstruck as they see images of faces that have turned red or black. Most bodies have their eyes closed, their mouths half open, and their wet hair slicked back.
"You were here, dad!," a middle-aged woman says when she spots a man's picture, dropping to her knees. "Welcome back, dad. Welcome back!", she continues, stroking the picture.
As many of the victims are elderly, children are proving easier to find.
But pictures of some children have been flapping in the cold wind for days, raising the worst fears about the fate of their parents.
"I was very scared to see the bodies initially, but I needed to get used to it," Suzuki says, steeling herself for another grim search.
She cannot erase from her mind the sight of recovered bodies she saw at the town hall near her house, among them small brothers still hugging each other, and a mother clutching her child to her breast in a mortal embrace.
"I was born and grew up by the sea," says Suzuki, "but I don't want to see the ocean any more."
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