Tough life after losing one’s mother during Jeju Apr. 3 Massacre

Posted on : 2019-04-08 16:22 KST Modified on : 2019-04-08 16:22 KST
Han Ok-ja’s family was forever changed by the brutality of military and police
A painting depicting a moment when Han’s younger brother still tried to nurse at his mother’s breast after she’d been shot by punitive forces
A painting depicting a moment when Han’s younger brother still tried to nurse at his mother’s breast after she’d been shot by punitive forces

The wind whipped snow into their faces. Hand in hand, frightened villagers headed down the narrow backstreets toward the schoolyard. The drifting snow mingled with the smoke and the acrid smell of burning straw thatch. The dull glow of flames flickered from every house.

On Jan. 17, 1949, soldiers bearing guns fitted with bayonets roamed through Bukchon, a village in the township of Jeju, bullying the villagers and herding them into the yard by the elementary school.

It was a bitterly cold day. Han Ok-ja, 79 (then 9), was at home, in the eastern half of the village, with her grandmother, her 40-year-old mother (Kim Sang-pil), 13-year-old brother, 11-year-old sister (82 today), 7-year-old sister and 4-year-old brother when the soldiers suddenly burst in and forced the family to leave their house.

The mother carried Ok-ja’s infant brother on her back, while the grandmother urged them onward, holding her grandchildren by the hand. As they reached the inner path, they could see everyone from children to senior citizens proceeding toward the schoolyard. Some were barefoot. Residents who could not move well enough were shot. Reaching the schools, they looked back to see the village burning; the wind driving up white flakes of snow forming an odd contrast with the red of the flames. Already, the schoolyard was filled with terrified villagers.

A “pleasant dream” evaporates

Han Ok-ja had taken the Japanese name “Tamako.” The children had been born in Japan, where their father Han Bong-chan had lived with them before returning to his hometown of Bukchon just before Korea’s liberation. Only her youngest brother had been born in Jeju. A few years before the Jeju Uprising (Massacre), the father had gone back and forth between Korea and Japan buying and selling silk and cotton cloth, until he and two other villagers were killed when their boat was wrecked in a storm off the coast of nearby Jocheon. The grandmother and remaining family members lived peacefully in a house comprising a main building and an outer building used as a stable. The grandmother and mother got on so well that villagers would comment on it.

A first grade student, Han Ok-ja enjoyed elementary school. Her brother was in his sixth year. The family was not wealthy, but it was not suffering either. While the males went about in shoes of rubber or straw, Han would walk around in black sneakers with cute belts attached. When sending her daughter off to school, the mother would sing “off to school, off to school” to her children. She remembered a field day in her first year, where her brother’s cries of “Run, Ok-ja, run!” inspired her to run with all her might. Food and items were in short supply in Jeju, where families would sit around eating rice out of one brass or wooden bowl; in Han’s family, the mother would scoop out rice for each member to eat in a red rice bowl brought from Japan.

“Back then, I would go home and practice the things I learned in school, and when it came time to go to school, I got so excited I would get up early to wash up,” Han recalled with a sigh.“Everything ended after that day. Had it not been for April 3 [the term used to refer to the Jeju Massacre and its aftermath], I think my mother would have kept sending me to school and lived as long as the others.”

 not knowing she was dead. (provided by artist Kang Yo-bae)
not knowing she was dead. (provided by artist Kang Yo-bae)
Jan. 17, 1949: A schoolyard stained with blood

It was all over. The same proud village that had produced so many activists fighting the Japanese occupation was reduced all at once to ashes before the muzzles of the soldiers’ guns. The destruction was total. The frenzied massacre was carried out by soldiers as retaliation for the deaths of two unit members in a guerrilla ambush at Neobeunsungi, not far from Bukchon Elementary School.

The Hans arrived at the schoolyard around midday to find it already filled with fear-stricken residents. The soldiers threatened the residents, whom they separated into those who were family members of soldiers and police and those who weren’t. Hoping to survive, the residents allowed themselves to be herded. Standing hand in hand, the Han family was separated and sent to different sections of the yard. The mother carried Ok-ja’s infant brother on her back while the others stayed with the grandmother; the soldiers then separated them again, leaving Ok-ja’s brother with her younger sister and Ok-ja with her older sister, while their grandmother was sent off to a different section.

The rattle of gunfire erupted.

“There were shots all around. Everyone dropped face down on the ground. The gunfire stopped and we looked up. I thought, ‘Oh God, where is our mother?’ I looked all around, but I couldn’t find her anywhere.”

Still carrying Ok-ja’s four-year-old brother on her back, the mother had been shot by soldiers in the center of the schoolyard. Someone approached Ok-ja. “Your mother’s dead,” the person cried. “Your younger brother is still clinging to her and nursing.”

The young Ok-ja searched desperately for her grandmother and mother, crying out in a tearful voice.

“My second grandchild, my oldest grandchild, I’m here,” the grandmother called back. “Your mother’s dead. She’s dead. What am I going to do? How will I live?”

The mother’s death was devastating to young Ok-ja.

“Even at that young age, I was just so heartbroken, thinking, ‘How am I going to live now that my mother has died?’” she recalled, her voice trailing off. As the soldiers halted their executions, the prostrated villagers stood up and began anxiously walking about in search of their own families. As snow fell on the carnage, Ok-ja’s four-year-old brother Gyeong-rim suckled at his mother’s breast, his body wriggling.

Not just painful but devastating

An image of the nursing infant dangling from his mother’s body hangs today at the Neobeunsungi April 3 memorial in Bukchon. The painting “Nursing Child” by artist Kang Yo-bae shows the tragedy of the bloodshed that took place in the village. The child pushing his mother’s vest open to nurse is Ok-ja’s younger brother. Even today, the image remains indelibly imprinted in the minds of the villagers present in the schoolyard that day.

“The troops were telling military and police family members to come with them, so the mother and child went to the west side of the schoolyard thinking they’d be spared if they went there, and they ended up being shot,” explained former Bukchon April 3 Victim Family Member Association Chairman Lee Jae-hu, who was nine years old at the time.

“I could see her breast showing through her jacket, and the child crawling over to nurse at it,” he recalled.

Another witness surnamed Lee, now 85, was 13 years old at the time.

“There was no one in that mother’s family who had fled into the hills as a rebel. She was standing there with her child, and she ended up being shot,” Lee remembered.

“She fell to the ground, and her son, not realizing she was dead, opened her jacket to nurse at her breast.”

As she spoke to the reporter, Han Ok-ja erupted in loud sobs.

“I was so young, yet I was fearful of what would become of us now that my mother was dead,” she remembered. She also confessed a desire to paint over the “Nursing Child” image at the Neobunsungi memorial, which she said reminded her of the events of that day.

“It’s so painful that they hung up a painting of my mother and my nursing brother. It’s not just painful, it’s devastating,” she said.

“Some may say that the image will stand as history, but I’ve sometimes considered bringing a can of paint and painting over it. They ought to replace it when they do repairs and renovations.”

Around 300 villagers – male and female, young and old – were killed that day. Representing the single largest death toll of any one incident during the events of Jeju April 3, the Bukchon massacre was carried out mainly in fields to the east and west of the school. It came to a stop around 5 in the afternoon when the commander’s jeep pulled up in nearby Hamdeok Village to the west and the order to stop was given. The massacre that day was spearheaded by the 3rd Battalion of the 2nd Regiment, known as the “northwest battalion” due to the large number of members who were young men from the northwest of North Korea.

Sister left stumbling in front of the schoolyard

Those who survived the massacre were left out of their senses. The village was cloaked in smoke and the stench of burning; the residents choked on the smell of burning grain and livestock. Most of the thatched-roof homes were incinerated, but some remained intact. After gathering the bodies of their family members and relatives, villagers crowded into the unburned houses, where they stayed up through the night. All of them were weeping – some having lost entire families, others having lost parents, siblings or relatives. As the following day broke, older men from the village arrived bearing the scorched carcasses of pigs, which they proceeded to boil.

There had nothing else for food, and the hungry neighborhood “uncles” wept as they ate.

That day, the snow fell once again. The surviving residents were evacuated to Hamdeok, around 3 to 4km away. Ok-ja’s grandmother walked to Hamdeok with her neighbors, carrying Ok-ja’s brother on her back and clutching her grandchildren’s hands.

“We had nothing to wear, nothing to eat. It was a brutal struggle,” Ok-ja remembered. The five surviving family members went to live together in a cramped and seedy rented room. The following day, the grandmother set out in search of food, carrying Ok-ja’s brother on her back. Arriving home later on, she placed rice in a brass bowl before the grandchildren crowded around the table. She then placed a single spoon in the center of the rice.

“Grandmother, why did you put the spoon in the middle?” Ok-ja asked her.

“This was your mother’s spoon. You can’t see her, but your mother is here,” came the reply. “She came to see you. Just leave the spoon there without touching it until all your rice is eaten.”

Ok-ja lived there for a year before she and her sister, who was a year younger, moved to their cousin’s home in the nearby village of Gimnyeong, where they would live for the next seven to eight years. While living in Gimnyeong, Ok-ja would sometimes tearfully embrace her sister at the thought of her grandmother and other siblings.

“I felt such a strong attachment to them that whenever I thought of my grandmother, my older siblings and my little brother, I’d feel so heartbroken that the food would stick in my throat,” she remembered.

Life was also difficult for the family members who remained in Hamdeok. Ok-ja’s older sister would bring rice from the village after her grandmother went to Bukchon in the early morning to pull weeds in the barley field. As the sister passed by the schoolyard where her mother had been killed, she would sometimes stumble and drop the rice as the tears welled up in her eyes. She would then collect the spilled rice from the ground and sit with her grandmother picking out the dirt so they could eat it. That spring, the residents returned to Bukchon from their evacuation to Hamdeok. The family was left with no choice but to build a mud hut on the sites where their houses had burned down. The grandmother and Ok-ja’s older brother and sister walked the mountain paths up to Seonheulgot – around 5 to 6 km away – to chop wood for the house. Often, they would stumble or fall over while carrying the loads of wood. Several times, the skin was ripped from the brother and sister’s shoulders.

Han Ok-ja and older sister the only survivors in family of seven]

When Ok-ja was around 12 years old, she visited Bukchon to perform ancestral rites for her mother. After going there, she did not want to return to her cousin’s house. No matter how difficult the situation was, she wanted to live with her grandmother and older siblings.

“You can’t stay here,” the grandmother told the weeping girl.

“If you live there, you’ll be happy and have good clothes to wear and food to eat,” she insisted. For the 10 days after her hometown visit, Han could neither eat nor sleep through her tears.

Han eventually married at the age of 25. Her grandmother passed away after a difficult life. The younger brother who had nursed at his dead mother’s breast died 15 years ago. Of the six family members, only Han and her older sister remain alive today.

“If I told you all of the pain I suffered after April 3, I wouldn’t be able to bear the tears. I can’t speak the words, and I have no gift for talking. I can’t share the pain I felt.”

By Huh Ho-joon, Jeju correspondent

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