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'Old Men Squad' completes patrol mission in evacuated Fukushima town

Members of the self-described "Old Men Squad" take a rest as they work on a mountain path in the town of Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 29, 2019. (Mainichi/Tsuyoshi Morita)

OKUMA, Fukushima -- A group of six elderly men that patrolled this evacuated town following the 2011 nuclear disaster disbanded at the end of March ahead of the lifting of the evacuation order for some areas of the town on April 10.

The self-described "Old Men Squad" was organized in April 2013 and was based in a town liaison office in the restricted residence zone. The group of temporary town employees was led by Hisatomo Suzuki, 66, former head of the general affairs department of the Okuma Municipal Government.

Suzuki had volunteered to work at the branch as he thought that "young employees shouldn't take the risk of being exposed to radiation so this old man will go to the front lines." The other five members -- including retired town officials -- in their 60s specializing in managing water facilities, firefighting and surveying joined him and the unique group started working to maintain the vacant town.

The team went into Okuma every day in rotation and worked to maintain public facilities as well as to help evacuees who were worried about their homes by carrying out tasks such as confirming gas valves were closed and disposing of gasoline left behind. Group member Tsunemitsu Yokoyama, 66, former head of the restoration work department at the Okuma Municipal Government, said, "We did everything we thought was necessary."

The evacuation order, which currently covers the entire town, is scheduled to be lifted on April 10 for some areas that hosted only 4 percent of the town's population before the disaster. A new town office building will open in that part of Okuma as the old building in the original town center is expected to be under evacuation orders for a long time.

Group members are proud that they could fulfill their roles to maintain the town until residents can return and they can hand over the baton to younger generations.

(Japanese original by Tatsushi Inui, Iwaki Local Bureau)

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