It would be easy in this line of work to fall foul of the trap of becoming numb to human suffering. It would be easy to ask someone an inappropriate, or insensitive question.
And it would be easy to label someone a ‘victim’ rather than a human being who has lived through a dreadful and traumatic experience.
I hope that I have never fallen into this trap. But every now and then I am so moved by a human story of survival and resilience that it acts as a visceral reminder to always treat disaster-affected people with respect and dignity.
Today at an evacuation centre on the outskirts of Ishinomaki, I met Seina, 9, and his mother Yuriko.
Their story had me wiping tears from my eyes, and my translator, who lives in these parts, emotionally drained.
On March 11, the day of the earthquake and tsunami, Siena, a fourth grade primary school student, knew what to do since he practiced the drill many times at school – get under a table, and stay there until given the all clear from the head teacher.
Once the ground stopped shaking, the order was given to assemble outside for a headcount. The time was approximately 14.50.
Standing in the schoolyard was Seina’s elder sister, also a pupil at the school. They comforted each other, and then went their separate ways.
It was the last time Seina would ever see his sister.
Upset and anxious, Seina was eager to get to his mum, and chose to cycle home.
His sister, whose name and age I do not know since my translator felt awkward asking (who can blame him?), chose to ride the school bus.
It’s a decision that cost her her life. And it’s a decision that cost the lives of 94 out of 108 school children.
I’ll repeat that: 94 out of 108 children died in this one school because of the tsunami.
I learn this devastating news half way through my interview with Seina and his mother Yuriko.
Even before I’m told, I know something’s wrong. Seina wipes tears from his face, and my translator bows deeply. He then turns away and starts crying. He asks me to take a break from the interview, which I do.
After a few minutes we return to the interview. I feel uncomfortable and self-concious, but I’m assured it’s OK to continue by my translator and the family.
Seina says that what he wants more than anything is to go home. That won’t be possible. His home was wiped out by the tsunami. “We have nothing left. Only my mother and me. My sister is gone.”
I’m at a loss for words. I start to stumble through my questions, but want to appear in control so that I don’t cause Seina and his mother more distress or discomfort.
This is the saddest story I’ve heard.
To see children forced to live cheek-by-jowl with other homeless families in draughty temporary accommodation centres like sports halls and gymnasiums huddled around kerosene stoves (there’s no electricity) for warmth is heart-breaking.
To know some of them have lost loved ones is, well, beyond words.
Children like Seina desperately need help.
We may not have the resources to be everywhere in tsunami-affected Japan — the devastation stretches 600 kilometres along the coast line. But we will reach as many children as possible with blankets, warm clothes and through our network of Child Friendly Spaces.
That’s some of the physical stuff taken care of. But how on earth you get over the death of a daughter and a sister I don’t know. I can’t imagine the grief. I can’t imagine the heartache.
All I can do in my role as a communicator is let the world know what’s happening so that the children of Japan get the help they need.