Ishinomaki, Japan (AFP) April 27, 2011
Weeks after a tsunami crashed into her Japanese home town and took away her daughter, Takako Suzuki received the phone call she had long dreaded but finally come to hope for.
Police had found the remains of the 41-year-old woman, this AFP reporter's sister, only a few hundred metres from the ruined family house in the fishing port of Ishinomaki, now a wasteland of mud and rubble.
In a sign of how agonising searching for a loved one had been for Suzuki, 67, and for countless others here, a neighbour expressed relief at the news that the remains had been found, saying simply: "That's good".
The news brought a degree of closure for Suzuki after a painful search that had started after the March 11 quake, when snow fell on the town, and ended when cherry trees started to blossom above the rubble.
Across Japan's shattered northeast, more than 14,000 people have been confirmed dead as a result of the 9.0 magnitude quake and tsunami -- but over 11,000 people remain missing, and it is clear many will never be found.
"Behind those who are missing, there are tens of thousands of anguished people," said Suzuki. "Children looking for their parents, parents looking for their children, and many many others."
Like them, Suzuki had spent weeks searching for her daughter, feeling her hopes slowly fade as she visited evacuation shelters, then hospitals and finally makeshift morgues, her wish in the end only to find the body.
During the gruelling search, she saw hundreds of bodies -- wrapped in plastic sheets, in bags or coffins -- as well as thousands of haunting forensic images, many of which she has been unable to banish from her mind.
"A pair of small brothers still hugging each other, a mother clutching her child to her breast," she remembered, sitting in her home, the ground floor of which was destroyed by the tsunami.
"These images will stay with me for the rest of my life."
As she readied for the worst, she requested her daughter's dental records, picked hair samples from the house for possible DNA matching and collected items she knew her daughter must have touched for fingerprints.
One month after the disaster came the phone call.
A police officer said a body carrying her daughter's hospital card in a pocket of her clothes had been found amid the rubble only a few hundred metres from their ravaged family home.
Suzuki, who had sought to steel herself for this day, broke down in tears.
"She was lying so close," she said. "I was sorry that I hadn't been able to find her. I had passed by that spot many times before."
Dazed, she packed some things and got in a relative's car.
"I put five boxes of tissues and a raincoat in a plastic bag, even though it was a fine day," she said. "I don't remember what I was thinking."
When she viewed the body and belongings, she saw a house key that was identical to her own. Then she collapsed.
"I left the morgue, helped by two policemen," Suzuki said.
"Which mother could keep her calm after seeing the drowned body of her child lying in front of her?" she later said.
Suzuki said she had a strange feeling when she found her daughter was missing her left shoe.
"I had been missing a right shoe and was looking for it," she said.
"Of course we weren't sharing the same pair of shoes. But I felt that between us -- a daughter and her mother -- we were sharing one pair."
Despite her grief, finally knowing her daughter's fate gave her some peace after the emotional turmoil of the previous weeks.
"When it rained, I had always worried because it may damage her body," she said. "When it was fine and warm, I worried because the body may rot... I have been relieved from these worries."
Still, the trauma has taken its toll.
"I used to be a cheerful person... Now I see flowers out there, but I don't see any reasons for them to bloom now.
"Whenever a big aftershock hits, I pray, 'Let me die in this quake'."
Because of the vast death toll in the region, crematoriums have been overburdened, and the body was kept in a coffin filled with dry ice at the funeral home, whose president was also killed in the tsunami.
It took one week before Suzuki could have her daughter cremated at a facility 60 kilometres (40 miles) away which is now burning 60 bodies a day.
In the nearby cemetery, mangled cars and ships lie scattered amid the rows of gravestones. Knowing it will take months before the ashes can receive a proper burial, Suzuki took the urn home instead.
"Her final appearance was what seemed to be a faint smile," said Suzuki. "It wasn't an agonised look. I believe and hope (her death) came very quickly."
Suzuki gently placed the ashes on a dimly lit makeshift altar.
"Welcome back," the mother said.
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Japan's imperial couple on Wednesday made their first visit to the country's tsunami-ravaged northeast, where they were cheered by hundreds of elated well-wishers. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, seen as living symbols of national unity, comforted survivors of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami at evacuation centres in a devastated port town and in nearby Sendai city. Meeting evacu ... read more
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