It is a bright morning when we visit the El Carmen school. Two weeks after the Escazú landslide, which killed 23 residents, including three little students from the same class, the school is open again for 320 pupils, ages 5 – 12.
Imagining how frightened they are, my friends and I wish to introduce them to origami, the art of paper-folding, in the hope that it might help them to heal their minds. We sit down in one corner, watching the children enjoy the entertaining activity, which makes them smile and laugh again. Three paper cranes are made, first for practice, which we leave in the paper basket on the floor.
Half an hour later, the misty wind starts to blow. A female teacher walks by; she greets us politely. The three little paper cranes are then caught by her sad eyes. A moment later, the teacher softly holds the cranes in her hands.
In 1955, 55 years ago, a tiny paper crane was folded by Sadako Sasaki, one of the survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bombing of August 6, 1945. Sadako was a twelve- year-old girl who never gave up hope. She made paper cranes from gift and medicine wrappers while dying of leukaemia. She believed that when she completed folding 1,000 cranes, she would recover.
Sadako died on Oct. 25, 1955. She never finished the 1,000 paper cranes. However, her belief that ‘the paper crane will enable you to understand other people’s feelings, as if they are your own’ is still alive. Her family and friends helped accomplish her dream by folding the remaining paper cranes, which were buried with Sadako at her funeral.
Since then, the paper crane has become a symbol of peace. In Asia, people say that folding 1,000 paper cranes makes a person’s wish come true. For Sadako, the paper crane gave her hope. Even after her death, the paper crane still keeps her hope alive.
In 2005, 50 years after Sadako died, a thousand tiny paper cranes were folded by a group of poor children, the survivors of the December 25, 2004 tsunami that hit the south of Thailand. The village with no name located in the Phang Nga province was swept away by the giant waves. It was nine months after the tsunami when I arrived there with the village’s first volunteer team; not many adults were seen in the village – I saw mostly children in the small bamboo houses. “We were lucky because we were on the study camp up on the mountain, but our parents were gone with the waves”, I was told by them.
With muddy hands, around 15 village children with no names, were folding paper cranes from old newspapers that they got from the dumping area. They hung many paper cranes in their rebuilt houses. “I want the cranes to send a message to my mother telling her that I just want to see her body and give her a hug for the last time,” a girl told me with a smile on her face. “I will surely finish folding 1,000 paper cranes and make a wish that helps me to get my father’s land back from the local government someday” a growing boy shared this dream with me while folding his first paper crane.
According to the village leader, the paper crane was introduced to these children by a group of tourists from Japan who passed by this area during their journey to the famous beaches nearby. “I do not believe in the magic like that, but I love to see our children became alive again after the biggest loss of their lives”. Then, I saw a light in his eyes, and I believe that those paper cranes gave him hope as well.
After a month, just before I left the village with no name, a few girls ran after my volunteer team. They handed us 15 paper cranes without a word. I held one of the cranes all the way home.
The teacher gently holds three paper cranes in her hands. While the rain seems to be around the corner and the sunlight is fading away, we are about to leave the El Carmen school, to come back another day. The teacher asks if she can have the three paper cranes.
She is one of among 16 teachers who come from a different area, which is safer than Escazú. They are working in this school, located about 300 metres away from where the disaster happened. Moreover, we are informed that, according to the geologist, there is another part of the mountain that still needs to come down. It has been stopped at the moment, but could fall down any moment.
Despite knowing the great danger, none of the teachers want to leave the school. They come to school every day and work longer than regular hours, with the hope of bringing their pupils back to class again.
These teachers remain here to encourage people, according to the director of the school. They know that if they leave, all the people here who have nowhere to go will lose hope.
Activities are still going on and the kids are making noise in playground. She walks us quietly to the classroom, which she is in charge of. We enter the room and see the altar dedicated to the three dead children. I suddenly become speechless as I touch the Lilly flowers, with their sweet, sad smell on the altar. The teacher puts the three paper cranes on the altar before sharing with us her memories of the three little kids who are no longer here. She is crying; one of us starts to cry also. We finally say goodbye. I ask her for a hug.
As we are hugging each other and I am about to say something to comfort her, she instead pats my back and says thank you, again and again.
As I am leaving the room, I look at the altar for the last time. Someone states that the three little cranes made the altar look different – it came alive. And without saying anything further, we know that what makes things different in this school is the courage of all the teachers.
In 2010, 55 years after Sadako died, hope is still alive in the world, and I find it in Escazú.
In the memory of those who lost their lives in Escazú landslide, Costa Rica, 2010.
Please see more @ Costa Rica Landslide Awareness Project. I hope we can do something for all who are living in risk areas around the world.