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Tsunami survivors rescue photos as a reminder of life before disaster

By Jiyeon Lee, CNN
  • Villagers, rescuers, volunteers dig out photos, hope they'll be reclaimed by their owners
  • Makeshift gallery lets villagers look for memories from the days before the great waves hit
  • Many photos still need to be cleaned and set out to dry, and some photos can't be saved
  • The group plans to put together a database for the pictures but doesn't know how

Otsuchi, Japan (CNN) -- Across vast lands filled with mounds of rubble, villagers sort through items caked with mud, trying to salvage traces of their lives before a massive tsunami swept everything away one month ago.

Every now and then, patches of color, smiling faces, and memories captured in photographs appear through the dirt and debris.

For the past weeks across the tsunami-hit areas, villagers, rescue workers and volunteers have tried to dig out photos and albums in the hopes that they will be reclaimed by their owners. Many understand that simple photographs from the past carry much more weight for tsunami survivors than they used to.

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At the main evacuation center in Otsuchi, one of the cities hit hardest by the March 11 tsunami, a makeshift gallery has been set up for villagers to come through and look for their memories from the days before the great waves hit.

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"When I saw his face among all this, I was shocked but so happy," Hideto Abe said as he picked out a photograph of his longtime friend. His friend went missing after the tsunami. Abe said he will give the picture to his friend's brother.

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Victims of the tsunami walk through a narrow booth, intently looking at photos stuck to planks of wood, and they rummage through piles of wedding, birthday photos and other scenes worthy of a picture. Celebrations and moments of happiness dominate the hundreds of photos, in contrast to the scene of destruction outside the evacuation center.

Small tables are strewn with endless numbers of photos recovered from multiple areas across the city. After word broke about the photo collection, people brought in more.

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"They had a life here, they had their family here, friends here, [their] school here, everything, and it's gone. I'm so shocked that it's gone," said Lin Yamamoto, a Japanese aid worker who helped put the project together.

She believes bringing photos back to their owners is important, because so often it is all they have left to remind themselves of the good times.

Yamamoto is a member of a group called Campaign for the Children of Palestine. Once based in the Middle East, she is now in her home country to help her people, shocked by what has happened.

The temporary gallery is far from being finished. Crates of photos still covered in dust lie in one corner of the evacuation center. All photos needs to be carefully cleaned with water or wet rags and set out to dry before they can be put on display. Even with the utmost care, some photos cannot be saved.

The aid worker said it is heartbreaking when she damages a photo by mistake. "I feel so bad that I lost one picture. I feel so bad that I lost one memory," she said.

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The challenge extends to what to do with the photographs after people move out of the evacuation center. The group plans to put together a database for the pictures but doesn't know how.

Most pictures are nameless and have been found at sites far away from their origin after drifting with the tsunami. It would be a very difficult task to categorize or label the photos in any sensible way.

The hope is that people will have the strength to continue to search for their memories after have being through one of the most devastating times of their lives.

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