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Prison Tales

The Humiliation and the Sadness

Lee Jun Ha's Prison Tales 7.
 |  2009-06-16 13:51
A heavy rain had been falling throughout the morning at the reeducation camp. Outside the large metal entrance-gate a shabby looking 19 year old boy was pacing, soaked to the bone. This was me, Lee Jun Ha, condemned for a murder that had been nothing more than an accident.

I finally came to a halt in front of that terrible gate. As I approached, it became more and more ostentatiously large, black and imposing. I was standing there trying to slow my pounding heart when I heard the sharp, raspy voice of one of the military guards.

¡°Head down!¡±

Obediently, I lowered my head, and ¡®screeeeeech~~¡¯ the metal gate clamored on its hinges and swung open. The terrible noise was so alarming that I lifted my head just for a moment. My eyes flashed with white light as something hard smacked me in the back of the head.

¡°Where the hell did this dim-wit son-of-a-bitch drag himself in from?¡±
¡°Get your head down and your skinny ass in here!¡±

Without even a second to think about the pain I was rushed in. From behind me the sharp, terrible screeching of the gate as it closed made my head spin and sent shivers down my spine. I was scared to death and just stood there with my eyes closed. ¡°Alright you prick—follow me!¡± I opened my eyes, and before I could answer the military guard turned on his heels and was walking away.

I followed clumsily behind taking glances here and there. To the right written in large black letters were two frightening warnings ¡°Those caught trying to escape will be shot!¡±, and ¡°Escape is suicide!¡± Shaking with fear, I continued to follow. Off to the left I saw a group of inmates with sanitation tags on their arms haphazardly loading logs onto a big truck labeled ¡®Independence #82¡¯.

Or I thought they were logs, anyway. As I looked closer I realized they were corpses. My heart rose into my throat and I went stiff. Only one thought came to me, ¡°I¡¯m a dead man; that rumor about 80% of all prisoners either starving or being worked to death is not just a rumor after all.¡±

I stumbled after the prison guard to the front of security guard office number four. The security guard went inside said something about giving me ¡°the talk,¡± and a lieutenant army surgeon appeared.

¡°Turn around! Drop your pants!¡±

Dropping my pants, in front of the office, with no privacy from the many inmates coming and going was truly humiliating. I shuffled a bit in hesitation, then finally pulled down just my pants, leaving my underwear on.

The army surgeon who had been glaring at me from behind kicked me in the groin.

¡®Fuck,¡¯ I whimpered

The pain was so bad that I couldn¡¯t stand straight. That didn¡¯t matter though, since before I knew it I¡¯d been clocked in the face by an army boot. Words can¡¯t express how disgusted and enraged I felt. Regardless, I could do nothing, had blood streaming from my mouth and nose, while my underwear was pulled off and the health examination completed.

I even got an X-ray as part of the examination. After that the security guard said to the admissions director, ¡°Hey, write me up a note of admission for this starlet!¡± hit me again and escorted me to the admission¡¯s room.

Following him from behind I could see that the corridor was full of smoke. It was so heavy I couldn¡¯t keep my eyes open. Each cell had a small pit which provided heating. The fire in one was low and was just putting out smoke.

Soon we came to the cell at the end of the corridor on which it was written, ¡°new admissions¡±. The door was open, and I thought I had to enter with my shoes on. Mistake. Someone smacked the side of my face.

¡°You piece of shit—shoes off!¡±

If I had a hard time controlling my anger when the camp surgeon said ¡®even worms writhe when they¡¯re stepped on,¡¯ having a fellow prisoner do the same thing was more than I could stand. I swung back. His blood spattered as he fell forward on the floor. The eight people who had been sitting on the floor rose.

After 150 days in a lock-up, my legs were too limp and weak to resist and I took what felt like a lot of blows before fading into oblivion. I came round in the medical ward. My throat was dry.

I was out of my senses, sprawled on the floor where someone had laid me. I felt mortified and abused. I was lying there chewing my lips when an aged physician (actually a convict assigned to the duty) appeared and took my pulse.

¡°How old are you?¡± he inquired.
¡°19.¡±
¡°Pretty young. What crime did you commit kid? Steal something?¡±
¡°No.¡±
¡°What then?¡±
¡°Article 145, Clause 2.¡±
¡°My eye, awfully young for a murderer aren¡¯t you?¡±

I just couldn¡¯t bring myself to say that I had killed someone so I only mentioned the hearing. The physician understood.

¡°Are you also in for murder?¡± I asked
He grinned widely and said, ¡°Someone died because I inserted a needle incorrectly. You see I accidentally penetrated the liver. I was a doctor originally.¡±

I looked at his chest and saw the name Lee Hak Mo and his prison number written there.

¡°I¡¯ve been here for four years. Not long before I¡¯ll be leaving this place.¡±
¡°Really? That must be a good feeling¡±
¡°He he~ good? Hell yeah, it¡¯s good¡±

¡°Jun Ha, if you intend to live long enough to leave this place you¡¯ll have to learn the rules of survival. For three years close your eyes to everything, for three years stop your ears to everything, for three years say nothing and you¡¯ll live. When I look at you, there still seems to be enough good left to save. So live! Because you will leave this place someday, don¡¯t let yourself behave as you have today. There are a lot of people by your side that will support you. Even once you¡¯ve settled in, if you continue to feel abused you¡¯ll fight and if you let it the rage you feel will burst out. In those times, you must never allow your actions to be dictated by your emotions.

¡°Thanks for the advice.¡±

¡°Also, outwardly the people you¡¯ll see here look like criminals. Still, as much as they are human, feelings of love and camaraderie flow between them.¡±

An errand-boy prisoner came to inform the doctor that he was needed, so he left. The doctor had gone but somehow his words lingered, echoing around my mind.

¡°As much as they are human, feelings of love and camaraderie flow between them.¡±

Till then I had thought myself better off dead but after hearing those words my heart settled down somewhat and I felt that there was still hope. After a while I started thinking of my mother¡¯s tear-stained cheeks from the evening before at the train station. I already missed her more than I could bear.

¡®What would mom be doing right now?¡¯ I wondered.


My thoughts came back to the train station on the day I left town. Cuffed in irons, I, together with two prison guards had come into the waiting room of the public peace office. It was there that I met my friend Young Chun. He had come to send off some relatives.

¡°Jun Ha!¡±

At first he ran towards me, but after catching the icy glares of the prison guards he checked himself and asked where I was going. But the guards wouldn¡¯t let me answer. They were worried that if they let me see my mother before leaving I would be tempted to flea; that it would only aggravate me psychologically, and so they hadn¡¯t even informed my family.

Young Chun read my mind, and with tears flowing down his cheeks he mounted his bike and sped away into the distance. He went straight to my mother to inform her of the situation. He also told many friends he met along the way. He went to a few friends and their parents¡¯ homes as well, and some of mom¡¯s friends and other neighbors.

Luckily the train that I was to take was delayed for an hour and half.

The guards had locked the door to the local police station office and at first wouldn¡¯t allow me to see anyone. It was only after being bribed with cigarettes and alcohol that they relented. Mother flew over and embraced me without a word—only tears.

¡°Don¡¯t cry Mother! Until I return you must not get sick—stay well. I will live and I will return—count on it Mom.¡±

Mom could only burry her face deeper as the tears continued to flow.

¡°Mrs. Lee! It¡¯s ok. Remember Jun Ha? Even as a boy would go play on the tops of stony mountains and always returned alive and well. He¡¯s got pluck that boy. He¡¯ll return to us,¡± a neighbor said, attempting to encourage her.

The words of support and encouragement they offered to comfort Mom were of strength to me as I prepared to leave, but I could not meet their gazes with guiltless eyes.

¡°For goodness sake, please remove these cuffs,¡± my mother asked the guards.

The guard Seung Hyuk looked stubborn at first, but he finally relented and removed the cuffs.

¡°Young Chun, Sung Jun, Kwang Il—until I return you stay out of trouble and take care of yourselves. Listen to your parents! And look after my mother until I get back!¡±

¡°Jun Ha—don¡¯t worry about your mother. Be careful. They say that not everyone survives the reeducation camp¡¦but we¡¯ll be expecting you so you must survive and return to us¡±

My friends and all the others that came, each in their own way expressed their concern for me, and it gave me a lot of strength.

¡°Tooot!¡¯ The train whistle sounded. I stuck my shackled hands through a half-opened window and brushed the hands of my friends and family.

¡°Everyone—take care of yourselves¡±

As the train lurched forward mom grabbed my hand firmly and ran alongside yelling my name. Even as the train started to pick up speed Mom didn¡¯t let go, she just hung on to my hand more intensely.

Fearing what might happen, I quickly let go of moms hand and took my seat.

¡°Jun Ha~¡±

Finally the floodgate of tears I had been holding back rushed out. I sobbed like a child.¡±

As mother¡¯s pitiful cries for mercy sounded farther and farther in the distance, my eyes were so wet with tears I couldn¡¯t see a thing and I was so choked by emotion that I could hardly breathe. Someone lit-up a cigarette and held it to my lips.

After some time the tears finally dried up, and after taking in some nicotine my nerves started to settle. But what was I to do! My heart was torn asunder. And if my heart was thus, what of my mother! Her only child had been sent away to a reeducation camp.

That mother, whose visage was so kind, who had raised me since the age of eight without her husband—the mother who had taken good care of me. You, who somehow survived the terrible season of the ¡®arduous march¡¯ only to see your whole family die one morning from starvation—you, mother, who filled my bowl with your own meager portion when your own face was swollen with hunger. What could I have said that could possibly express the hollowness my mother must have felt—sending the son she had raised and loved in a furnace of affection to a reeducation camp.

They said there wasn¡¯t a dry eye in the station that day after seeing the image of my mother collapsed on the tracks wailing for her lost child.

I came to from my thoughts when the admissions officer called me back into his office.

¡°You son-of-a-bitch. Think this boot up your ass will wake you up? You want to find out?¡±

I just took it. No, I had to take it.

¡°Ah, I see the fire has died down a bit. First chicken-shit like you I¡¯ve seen in my 3 years as admissions officer. You think that¡¯s pretty bold stuff, talking shit back to an officer?

Veins pulsing, he asked what my sentencing was.

¡°Article 145, clause 2.¡±

¡°Ah-ha~ murdering son-of-a-bitch. Well that was before you knew the deep shit you¡¯re in now.¡±

Still I took it. I wouldn¡¯t allow myself to get excited. He then asked my name, home address, age, and family relations, made a document for me and told me to leave.

¡°Jun Ha! You—to the back and sit.¡±

I went to the seat that I had been directed to. As instructed I took off my clothes and sat down in front of the barber.

Clip clip clip. Unexpectedly I started to cry again. ¡®How in the name of God did it come to this?¡¯ It was the first time I had ever felt regret about losing some hair. My mid-length hair was wet and I was told to sit. From a gap in the window an unhappy breeze blew in and my head grew cold. This was how my life in the camp began.

To be continued¡¦
 
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