Friday, September 6, 2013

'This is where I'll die' (2) : the second and last part of the ilfe story of the late Korean Comfort Women

The Comfort Women issues strike me when I was in my M.phil days where I was opting one paper on Japanese. I find the topic very interesting and relate to my major subject so I wrote a term paper on this issue and got A. Since then I have been promoting this issue to  raise more and spread to many as much to hear the war victime women's unsung stories. This article is taken from the Korea Times English News.

A statue of a Korean woman forced into sexual slavery during World War Two surrounded by protestors outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
/ Korea Times photo by Ryu Hyo-jin

This is the second and last part of the life story of the late Lee Yong-nyeo, a former war-time sex slave, as told to Koh Hye-jung in an interview for the book Testimonials of Korean Comfort Women. The words were translated from Korean to English by Maija Rhee Devine, author of “The Voices of Heaven,” a novel published this year by Seoul Selection. Lee passed away on Aug. 11. This is an edited version of Devine’s translation. — ED.

Biographical information
Lee Yong-nyeo (1926-2013)
(Born in 1926 in Yeoju, Gyeonggi Province to a poor family, Lee Yong-nyeo was hired out as a domestic worker when she was eight. At eleven, she moved to Seoul, where she worked in factories or as a domestic until she turned fourteen. Then she was “sold” to a woman running a wine house, where she ran errands and waited on customers. In 1942, when she turned 16, the owner persuaded her to move to a new work place without revealing where the new job would take her. As it turned out, via Busan, Taiwan, and Singapore, she landed in a mountainous region of Burma. In that rugged terrain, her life as a comfort woman began.)

Lee’s words were translated by Maija Rhee Devine
A month after we sailed from Busan, we arrived in Rangoon, Burma. From there, we took a train to a small village. Here, my life as a comfort woman by the name of Harata Yo-o-jio began. When that happened, I said to myself, “Ah, this is where I’ll die.” The comfort station was a two-story building standing by the side of a road. The floor was white plaster, and there was a basement, to which we escaped whenever the air raid siren wailed.

The comfort station was at a distance from the village where locals lived, and I didn’t know where the army compound was, but at night, soldiers streamed in from who knows where. During our stay in that village, I became close to a military support person named Dachewoochi. He supplied us with rice, other food items, clothes, and various sundries we needed. Living just outside the military compound, he lived on a property that looked civilian, and he wore civilian clothes, including a white shirt, which he asked me to starch and iron for him.

One of the women who worked with us committed suicide by overdosing on soju (distilled Korean liquor) and opium. The soldiers made a wood pile and asked us to come and watch the dead woman being burned.

After a year there, we were moved away by truck. On the drive, we saw a hot spring. Soldiers poured the water into large drum cans and sat in them, but we women didn’t.

I lost my mind with homesickness

We drove all day to arrive at sundown at a small village in a mountainous area that had only a military hospital. Our station was located across a small stream from the hospital. All the soldiers coming to us seemed to be associated with that hospital. For the first time, we received a proper physical examination.

The station building had been empty. So, we cleaned it when we arrived. The building was square shaped with rooms in a row on both first and second floors. The building’s roof was high and with inside staircases on both sides. A well-built structure, its front gate area was surrounded by many Buddha statues. On the second floor alone, there were about twenty rooms, one of which was mine. The sign “Comfort Station” hung on the front of the building.

The Korean couple who had escorted the fifty of us Korean girls left us after assigning a room to each of us. Each room was numbered and showed the names of girls, but, being an illiterate person all my life, I don’t know what my number was. The room had a wooden floor and contained a bed and a wash basin. Not having a drain, we threw used water over the railing. The cafeteria downstairs was small and dirty. Three Chinese men cooked for us with the rice provided by the military. For clothing, we wore Western outfits that arrived through the military.

Because I didn’t eat well, my body became weak. About two years into the life as a comfort woman, I contracted malaria, took quinine, which caused jaundice. Through this ordeal, none of the other women gave me any assistance, which worsened my homesickness. Eventually, I became severely depressed for about six months, and I wandered around—even at night. I kept looking at the moon and stomped around. Once, I fell and rolled a ways on the ground. I still have scars from that fall.

Once, I wore the military uniform of the man who fell asleep in my room and tried to sneak into the hospital. When a security guard saw what I was doing, he aimed a gun at me. When he realized it was me, he took me back to my room. Soldiers often took me to the hospital, gave me tranquilizing shots, and retuned me back to my cubicle. At night, I went to a pond and rode a piece of log, saying I was heading home. As soon as people pulled me out of water, I went right back in. I heard these stories after I came out of my trauma.

During this period, a military doctor, a lieutenant, provided me with much care. Toward the end of my ordeal, he gave me glucose shots and comforted me with warm towel massages. He visited me two or three times a week and sometimes force-fed medicine. After I recovered, he often spent nights with me.

We received weekly examinations for sexually-transmitted diseases. When a disease was diagnosed, the afflicted woman’s door was tagged with a sign “vacation,” signaling off-limits to soldiers. The army hospital staff provided us with disinfectants, which, when mixed with water, turned pink to dark brown depending on the amount of water. We washed our private parts with that mixture. It was, if swallowed, potent enough, to kill a person. The soldiers brought condoms, but if they didn’t, I had a supply, and I made sure they were used by putting them on the men myself. But my military doctor friend did not use them. He came to me for over a year, until the war ended.

Upon entering a woman’s room, the soldiers handed over their tickets about the size of business cards. We averaged ten to twenty cards a day, but some women collected as many as thirty. We were told savings accounts were kept on our behalf, but I never saw mine, nor did I dare to ask. Again, the army doctor was an exception; he did not present to me any tickets.

There was an office downstairs, but I don’t remember who worked there. One day, the Korean men and women who brought us to this place disappeared, without saying as much as a goodbye. Later, I believe, soldiers worked there.

Soldiers could enter any of the women’s rooms not occupied by another soldier. Those on leave came during the day.

While I never used make-up, I received from the hospital basic goods such as a clothes chest, a box, and a mirror. During my days of deep depression, I laid these out in the middle of my room, or so I was told later.

Three or four of the women committed suicide. Some women left with officers, with whom they set up housekeeping. Some died of diseases, while others ran away. All in all, the number of women dwindled to about twenty. With permission, though infrequently given, we went on outings. But, because the surrounding area was mountainous, and the locals were foreign to us, we did not dare to run away for fear of getting caught and killed. Once, we were told to come and see the corpse of an American pilot whose surveillance plane was shot down. So, we went and saw a white man who had only his thighs and buttocks left—no head, body or arms.

Shortly after that, soldiers stopped coming; they had all left the area.

End of the war and the military doctor

The war ended, a year after I suffered my bout with depression. The doctor disappeared, too—without a word. I had never heard a single gunshot the whole time we were there. Even at the previous place, when the bomb siren went off or bomber planes flew low, we hid in the bomb shelter, but we were never bombed.

Then, out of nowhere, Korean men appeared and asked us to go with them.

We walked in the rain and heat until our feet swelled and blistered. We crossed a body of water that reached up to our necks, carrying on our heads only rice, red pepper flakes, and salt. Once, we cooked rice in water red with mud. After we walked ten days, resting an hour here and there, we reached Rangoon. There, we learned we would head home, at which news I nearly lost my mind again—this time with joy.

At the refugee camp in Rangoon, which had a large yard like a school playground, we lived together with Korean men drafted into the Japanese military. Women from various locations, about fifty in all, gathered there, and we received cooked food that occasionally featured bits of pork fat floating on top. We were taught how to cross streets, and we even had races. We sang the Korean National Anthem. One evening, a stage was set up, and we had plays and sang songs. I think I sang “Without an Address Plaque nor House Number.” It was always hot there, and groups of us threw some mats on the floor and slept together. We even had a dentist, and I got my molars pulled. We could come and go as we liked, except we needed to return to the camp.

In a large ship, we arrived in Pusan in March, 1946, a year after the war ended. But because of a person on board who was believed to have contracted typhoid, we could not disembark. Then we sailed to Inchon, but we were not allowed to disembark there either. A word that if we turned over our valuables, we would be allowed to leave the ship circulated. So, we took off our gold rings and other items, some of which were gifts from soldiers. Soon we got off the ship, at which time we were given 1,000 won each.

When my friend Duk-sool and I landed in Inchon, her mother and older brother greeted her, but no one waited for me. When I reached our Hongeun-dong family home, they had moved. How dejected I felt. Fortunately, my father’s friend took me to my brother’s house in Euljiro.

There I learned of my father’s death. On December 2nd of 1945, the year Korea was liberated from Japan, he passed away. He was fifty. Back when he sold vegetables in the market and sometimes worked as a porter, he bought small amounts of rice with the money he earned. But he spent the rest on gambling, often letting his family go hungry. It was so miserable for us that once I yelled at him, “Why don’t you drop dead!” Now, those words stab my heart. My younger brother had worked for a business run by the Japanese, but he injured his leg on the job and became handicapped.

As a twenty-one-year-old then, I held various jobs, including working as a restaurant helper and a housemaid. To kill the pain life had dealt me, I drank heavily, gulping two or three bottles of makgeolli rice wine each day. When the alcohol hit me, I wept over my pathetic life. Now, because of bad teeth, I cannot eat or drink hot or cold foods. My stomach is bad, too.

I never expected to live a normal marriage life as other women did. After the “January 4 Retreat,” (UN forces abandoned Seoul January 4, 1951 and withdrew to Pyongtaek-Wonju-Samcheok line) when I went to live in Chungju, I met a man seventeen years older than me and lived with him. But, as I did not like developing closeness with men, we didn’t have a good relationship. Of course, I couldn’t produce an offspring. Five or six years ago, at the age of seventy four, he passed away. My life has been difficult, but I have the comfort of regarding his son as my unofficially-adopted child.

My words to Japanese government

I think I could lead a restful life, even if I live in a one-room rental, if only I could receive compensation from the Japanese government. Since the Japanese invaded our country and did whatever they pleased with our people while living high on the hog, I am not holding my breath to strike it rich with their compensation. I just want a payback for having had my virginity taken away by force. They dragged us away and did with our bodies what they pleased. Now, they spew blasphemies—that we voluntarily walked into that abject life ourselves. Does that sound like a legitimate justification for not compensating us? Hadn’t forcibly luring us away and holding us captive against our will been Japan’s imperial policy after all? The Japanese government must not attempt to wriggle out of their duty to us any longer.

Source: The Korea Times

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