[Special reportage-Part II] The lives of female runaways in Seoul

Posted on : 2012-10-01 06:48 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
[Part 2 of a six part series]

By Um Ji-won and Park Ah-reum, staff reporters

It is not so bad to wander the streets in the daytime, but the nighttime is very long for homeless people who have nowhere to rest.

Runaways Ji-min, A-young, and Hye-ri, all 14, had no place to sleep comfortably, so they went to a fast-food restaurant. They put several chairs together to create a space to lie down. Despite the cramped space, after having spent the whole day wandering the streets, they fell asleep immediately.

“The third floor is about to close,” they were told by the restaurant‘s clerks. Around 3 in the morning, the girls came down to the second floor and again put chairs together to sleep on. They seemed accustomed to being moved around.

“You are not allowed to sleep here.” Ji-min woke up instinctively as she heard the annoyed voice from the clerk, but the other two didn’t move.

The people who see the girls sleeping in public have no idea why they live this way.

It was 7am when the girls eventually came outside, as the clerk asked them to leave while the restaurant was cleaned. They went to a convenience store to get a 1000 won (about 85 cents) rice ball for each person, which meant the start of another boring day outside.

It is Ji-min‘s sixth year living on the streets. Every time she went back home, she would soon run away again. “All I wanted was for my family to be normal and happy, just like the others. But when I actually come back home, every common values are left out. Abuse is the only thing I get. It’s like a dark cloud hangs over our family.”

After starting elementary school, she would wake up at 6 each day. Her father asked her to write 200 Chinese characters every morning before going to school. One day, she woke up late and asked her father if she could do it later so as to not be late for school. Ji-min says what happened next was, “Unforgettable”.

Her father left the room and came back with a bottle of pesticide. “If you are going to act up like that, you should drop dead!” he said. Then he poured the chemical into a cup. Forcing her to the ground, he put the cup to her mouth. Ji-min fought for her life and closed her mouth as tight as possible. The pesticide flew around her firmly closed lips.

Ji-min was physically abused by her stepmother starting when she was 8. Her stepmother ordered her to be home at 1, even when her classes didn‘t finish until 2. She ran straight home after class, but was always late. Her stepmother would then beat her all over with a bamboo pole. She couldn’t stand the punishment any more so, while her stepmother went to look for another cane, she ran away for the first time with only her piggy-bank and suitcase.

As the years went by, the stepmother‘s violence reached a new level. When Ji-min’s father was sleeping, her stepmother would come into her room and beat her for no reason. One day, she took her to an alley where she strangled and beat her.

Once Ji-min got a bad grade in school and her stepmother forced her head under water in a large washbasin. “She let me go when I was about to faint. I couldn‘t tell these things to my father, because he would just scold me ”.

One day when her great aunt came to visit, Ji-min pleaded with her, “I can’t live here anymore. It‘s killing me. Please let me go to an orphanage rather than being here.” What the 11-year-old girl wanted was not to be beaten to death, so she ran away to survive, she said breathlessly.

A-young was happy once. When she was living with her parents in a small city in the suburbs, the living was much better. But once her mother left her father for another man, their fortunes began to decline. One day, her father asked, “Who do you want to live with, mommy or daddy?” A-young still regrets saying “daddy” at the time. “Looking at the other kids, it seems like living with mom is better, since we can communicate more easily.” She said.

After the divorce, her father quit his job. They moved to Seoul, and he got a job at a factory. He said, “Being at home is annoying” and only came back home on weekends. A-young ended up living with her grandmother.

Kids at school started to gossip about her, calling her the ’girl who lives with her Grandma and doesn‘t have a mother’, which made her an outcast at school. She began spending most of her time in front of the computer.   

It was the sixth grade when her father started to abuse her. When her grandmother told her dad that she was acting up, he slapped and punched her. A-young thinks that it is because of her mother. “They say that I take after my mother and am going to end up like her.”

“The abuse was bearable, but waking up and preparing everything by myself was the thing that made me sad,” she said. Going to school after eating breakfast made by her mother was her only wish. The saying that ‘she is going to end up like her mom’ made her to refuse to yield her self-esteem and made her to leave home just like her mother.

The only shelter that these young girls can find is with older runaways. To stay with them, they have to provide services, including sexual deeds to adult men. When A-young ran away she was only 13, and didn‘t know about the reality of life without a home.

Translated by Lee Choon-geun, Hankyoreh English intern

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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