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At ‘Ground Zero’ Of Kobe Quake, Rebuilding Is Just Beginning

January 17, 1996

HOKUDAN, Japan (AP) _ A year after the Kobe quake, the earth of Awaji Island still bears the scars.

Off a twisting coastal road, just past a small shrine, a narrow track through a winter-fallow rice field is ripped by a yawning crack more than three feet wide. Awaji Island was at the quake’s epicenter.

``See this path?″ says islander Tadayuki Katayama. ``The quake did that.″

In this small farming and fishing village, everything was touched by the quake that struck just before dawn a year ago Wednesday. Nearly everyone knew someone who was hurt or killed. Hardly a building was unscathed.

Just down the road from the quake-riven rice field, Ryuei Negita, the Buddhist priest at the True Fountain temple, knelt on a mat, drinking tea and talking about how he is trying to help quake victims recover.

He and his temple are victims themselves. The structure was flattened by the quake, and he hopes it can be rebuilt. But so far, all that’s been fixed is a single Buddha statue, which rests on the altar in a prefabricated building-turned-prayer hall.

``Many followers at the temple lost their homes, so we’re not ready to talk about the temple reconstruction yet,″ he said. ``The priority is to think how we can get some stability in our daily lives, and then we can start thinking about the temple. I have no idea how long that might take.″

In a tiny hollow just below the temple is a cluster of prefabricated huts where Negita’s 65-year-old mother Yoshiko lives.

A year after the quake, her memories of it are still vivid. She was buried beneath columns and broken pieces of wall in the big main hall.

``It was so cold and frightening, one minute felt like an hour,″ she said.

Retired farmer Masao Kaji, 82, said he still can’t sleep sometimes thinking about what happened to him on that early winter morning. His body was thrown into the air as he slept, then buried by furniture and pieces of the broken wall.

``I still have difficulty going to sleep whenever I begin to remember how horrifying it was,″ Kaji said. A family member was killed, and of about 300 houses in his area, more than 200 were damaged.

Along with his fearful memories, though, Kaji is still moved by strangers’ kindness in the quake’s aftermath.

``People from neighboring prefectures (states) sent us relief food,″ he said. ``I cried when I took the first bite into the rice ball _ I’ve never forgotten how good it tasted.″

He said the disaster had also brought him closer to his neighbors.

``I started talking to people I had never spoken with before,″ he said. ``I have more friends now than I had before the quake.″

But he doubts whether he can build a home like his old one.

``Our community still has a long way to go,″ he said.

On the island’s northern tip, 81-year-old Ayako Higashine lives in a temporary housing compound on a windswept bluff.

``It’s really cold here!″ she said. ``And the bathtub is tiny _ I can’t move. These are my only pleasures″ _ and she cracked a smile, showing off a cigarette in her apron pocket.

A former barber, she earns pocket money by cutting her neighbors’ hair. She, too, sees little chance of living as she did before the quake.

``But I should stop complaining,″ she said briskly. ``I’m fortunate compared to others who suffered more.″

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