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Reuters Photographer Says He's Amazed By The Calm Of The Japanese People

A man walks through a former residential area of his home village of Otsuchi.
As Reuters chief photographer for Southeast Asia, Damir Sagolj has been covering events in Japan since last week's earthquake and tsunami and the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. A native of Sarajevo, who has covered a series of wars and natural disasters over the past 15 years, Sagolj is currently in Japan's northeast. He spoke by telephone with Nedim Dervisbegovic of RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

RFE/RL: Where are you located and what are conditions like there?

Sagolj: I am currently in the province of Iwade in the northeast of Japan, around 20 kilometers from the coast. I'm in a small city where the electricity and phones are still working. We are sleeping here, but during the day we mostly spend time in those small towns on the coast. We are approximately 150 kilometers north of the Fukushima nuclear plant. This is the part of Japan that suffered the most destruction from the tsunami and fires that took place after it.

PHOTOGALLERY: Photographer Damir Sagolj's shots of Japan's tsunami-stricken northeastern coast.

RFE/RL: Can you describe the situation there when you first arrived?

Sagolj: I can’t even remember exactly when I arrived. I came, I think, the day after the earthquake and tsunami. It took almost a whole day to come to the north of Japan from Tokyo because communication became difficult. Fast trains are not functioning. Highways are closed and a bit damaged. They are open only for fire trucks and emergency vehicles, so I needed almost a whole day to get here. To say the situation here is dramatic would be a simplification.

Everything is completely destroyed on the coast where the tsunami hit. This area is not so industrial; the main industry in these towns is fishing. They are all completely destroyed. The coast is completely ruined, many people were killed and many are listed as missing. In a town called Otsuchi, which I visited yesterday and today -- and which had about 17,000 inhabitants – 9,500 are listed as missing. That is horrific. And there are many towns like that. If you go inland from the coast, the situation looks better because the earthquake and tsunami weren’t as strong there. But life is totally paralyzed everywhere. Highways are closed. You can’t find gas anywhere.

For me, logistically, gas is the biggest problem. Every morning I wake up and beg someone to give me 10 liters of gas so that I can drive for 100 kilometers. There is no food. The phones are not working. The weird thing is that only phones with foreign numbers are working. And you know what is very interesting? People aren't panicking at all. If this happened in Europe … there would be enormous panic. I haven’t seen anyone panic in these four days. Nobody was taking food from destroyed supermarkets or stealing gas from ruined cars. Nobody was crying, screaming, or cursing. I have to admit that Japanese people are absolutely fascinating in this sense. I noticed their emotions only in two cases, but those were very extreme situations. This is completely fascinating."

RFE/RL: What is happening with survivors? Can humanitarian agencies offer them any help?

Sagolj: It is still too early for humanitarian organizations. They can’t do anything in just four days. Humanitarian organizations are fantastic and useful, but those mechanisms are slow and they need time to start working, especially when everything is on the international level, then it needs time.

The Japanese army is now helping people in trouble, they don’t call themselves an army but a territorial defense, and they are doing the biggest part of the job of finding survivors. They are also collecting dead corpses from the coast and they are clearing roads.

There are still no humanitarian organizations around here [other than the Red Cross]. The International Red Cross is providing medical help. The Japanese Red Cross is also very good and their hospitals are full. The other day I was in one of those hospitals. I slept over there because they have electricity. There are wounded people in the corridors, like in the movies or in reports from war zones.

[Other] humanitarian organizations will be here in due time. The Japanese people are very proud and they believe they can take care of things by themselves -- and they really can do a lot because they are very organized. But it seems to me that this tragedy is too serious and that other countries will have to get involved as well as humanitarian organizations. As rich and well-organized as Japan is, this catastrophe exceeds the national level. This is an international catastrophe.

RFE/RL: Are there any plans for evacuation. The situation at [the] Fukushima [nuclear plant] seems to be getting very serious. Did you talk to the local authorities? Are they prepared for an evacuation in the case of a huge nuclear catastrophe?

Sagolj: I know about what is happening in Fukushima, the same as anybody watching CNN. Information is coming only from the authorities. This is not the kind of tragedy where a journalist can go and report, so I don’t know any more than people who are following the news.

I’m making my own plans. I’m following the wind. Yesterday, it was blowing toward Tokyo and today toward the coast. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow and we also don’t know what will happen with the reactor. It is really difficult to communicate, almost impossible. All I can do is call people that know what is going on every hour or 45 minutes.

I don’t know if there are plans for an evacuation. But even if there were it would be extremely difficult to carry them out because Japan is a very densely populated country. It would be very hard to organize everything. Only a small part has been evacuated so far, about 30 kilometers around Fukushima. If I’m not wrong, that should be about 240,000 people. Imagine if they try to evacuate an area of 100 kilometers around. That would be millions of people. I haven't see any plans. If that happened, there would be chaos. This is especially true because the major ports are also ruined, so it would be hard to evacuate people that way. The ports were damaged in the tsunami. So if the worst-case scenario happens with the nuclear plant, it would be really horrible.