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Children return to school amid Japan nuke crisis

Image: Children attend a ceremony on their first day of school at Shimizu elementary school in Fukushima.
Children attend a ceremony on their first day of school at Shimizu elementary school in Fukushima, northern Japan, Wednesday.CARLOS BARRIA / Reuters
/ Source: staff and news service reports

More than 70 schools began regular classes in Fukushima for the first time Wednesday, after government officials carried out radiation testing in the prefecture amid the ongoing nuclear crisis.

A ceremony was held to mark the first day of school at Shimizu elementary school in the city of Fukushima since the earthquake and tsunami that hit the country on March 11, causing radiation leaks at a power plant.

that regional government officials began on Tuesday to carry out radiation testing at 1,400 kindergartens, elementary schools and junior high schools.

Officials said there would not be any problems provided the children stayed outside the evacuation zone created around the plant, Kyodo reported. Evacuation is mandatory up to 12.5-miles and advised up to 19.5 miles.

Kyodo said parents had expressed concern about walking their children to school and allowing them to play in school yards.

Some children from Fukushima have been evacuated elsewhere.

Keisuke Takahashi, 7, is staying at a youth center in Tokyo, CNN reported, while his parents work or look after other family members.

"I just got a letter from my mom," he told the broadcaster at Minamisuna Primary School. "It says that she is hurting because we're separated. But she says don't worry, we will go home together after the nuclear power plant settles down."

"I haven't got used to the life yet, because I have to live separately from my mom. I miss her," he added.

Distress behind the smiles
Experts are concerned about the effects of the disaster on children, behind the smiling faces of thousands in shelters across Japan.

"That's what is so wonderfully adaptive about children. They can move very easily into playing or laughing," said psychologist Susie Burke, a disaster response specialist with the Australian Psychological Society. "But that's not saying they're not deeply distressed and upset about what's going on."

Reminders of the tiniest victims are scattered throughout the wreckage: a little girl's white shoe caked in mud, a red rubber ball coated in dust, a sodden comic book whose ink has run.

As many as 25,000 people may have been killed in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan's northeast coast and damaged a nuclear plant, sending radiation spewing into the environment. Tens of thousands are still living in shelters.

For the children, the monster in the closet has been replaced by the monster of Mother Nature: The ground they play on can rattle and crack, the ocean they swim in can morph into a killer wave, the air they breathe might carry harmful radioactive particles.

Ten-year-old Fumie Unoura was sitting in class when the earth began to shake, sending her and her classmates scrambling under their desks for cover.

When the rumbling stopped, the teacher shepherded the students outside, where their town had turned to rubble.

"I saw the dust rising up," she recalled days later, standing outside a shelter in the shattered coastal city of Rikuzentakata.

With the tsunami coming, she ran as fast as her short legs could carry her, surrounded by others sprinting for safety.

She escaped with her life but little else. Her home is ruined. She sleeps on the floor of a school gym with her family and more than a thousand other survivors. She misses her Nintendo DS.

Her father, Masanari Unoura, volunteers at the shelter. He worries constantly about what will become of his life, where they will live, how he will clean up the ruins of their home.

"We parents have a lot to think about," he says. "Whereas the kids are basically free."

Fear of being alone
Save the Children, an international aid agency, has set up safe spaces for children to meet and play throughout the tsunami zone, with toys, games, crayons and paper.

"The stories they were sharing with me were about first an earthquake, then a tsunami and now their fears for radiation," says Ian Woolverton, a spokesman for the group.

But one fear reigned supreme, he says: "Being alone is the thing they're most afraid of."

At a shelter in Kesennuma, a group of boys plays basketball while volunteers from a Tokyo church give massages to elderly people on the second floor.

Sixteen-year-old Keisuke Iwate came here to visit his friend Yohei Sugawara. "There are people without homes," Iwate says. "They're not saying how sad they are, but you know they're feeling it."

Sugawara, also 16, said that the tsunami ruined the first floor of his house. Then a fire burned it down.

These days, he, too, has carved out a new routine.

"I help out at the refugee center every morning," he says. "And then we go and try to clean up the place where our house was and look for anything that might be left."

He's better off, he says, than another friend whose parents were killed.