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Ordeal Continues for Japan's Nuclear Evacuees

  • Henry Ridgwell

An elder woman wipes her eyes in long lines for food at an evacuation shelter in Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, April 2, 2011

An elder woman wipes her eyes in long lines for food at an evacuation shelter in Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, April 2, 2011

In a televised address to the nation, Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan has said the evacuation of residents from around the stricken Fukushima power plant will be long term. An estimated 70,000 people have been moved from settlements near the plant. Much of the population of Futaba town were evacuated to a huge stadium on the outskirts of the capital, Tokyo. They are now being moved on to yet another shelter.

Evacuating the population of an entire town is no simple task. For 1,200 residents of Futaba town - next to the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant - the Saitama Super Arena has been home for the past two weeks.

It is a cavernous concrete stadium. Freight locomotives and bullet trains sweep past every minute of the day. On the arena floor - normally occupied by pop bands and screaming fans - the residents have constructed cardboard walls and laid out their blankets on their small patches of ground.

The facility could hardly be described as homey. For Futaba’s evacuees, like Teiji Idogawa and his family, the uncertainty is starting to tell.

He says, "It has been tough. But we’ve been well taken care of by everyone. We’re really grateful.” But he adds, “I don’t know when we can go home… I hope we can go very soon. Going home is all I’ve been thinking about."

No one knows when Futaba’s people will return to what’s left of their homes. High radiation levels are still being detected even beyond the 20 kilometer evacuation zone.

The full impact of the radiation leaks on the local environment is not yet known. But some analysts fear the area around the Fukushima plant could remain dangerous for months if not years.

Volunteers arrived at Saitama Super Arena in their thousands. Donations of food and blankets are stockpiled. Young people especially - with free time during the spring holidays - have turned out to help the evacuees, like 14-year-old Futaba Nagata. She says, "I came here to do whatever I could. I felt I really needed to help."

In a corner of the arena Yoshige Tadashii plays his ukelele to a small crowd. He’s one of a number of entertainers - including circus acts and musicians - who have been trying to keep children and adults distracted. He says "I feel really sorry for these people. I want to cheer them up. To make them smile."

But the evacuees’ ordeal continues. Managers at the arena want the facility back for upcoming concerts and shows. So the residents must move on again. They are being transported to a disused school an hour away to the north. For many of Futaba’s people, this is the third time they have been forced to change shelters.

For 12-year-old Aya Nakai it is yet another strain. "I’m very sad,” she says. “I have made friends with the volunteers here in Saitama. I have to leave again. I just really want to go home."

Aya and her family then board one of the buses that will take them and the thousands of others on to the next shelter.

The volunteers turn out for a final send-off. Their banners announce simple messages - "We love Fukushima" and "Our friends from Futaba, take care."

For all involved it is an emotional goodbye. Futaba’s residents depart to another unknown part of Japan, and an even more uncertain future.