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Prison Tales

A New Inmate Learns about Malnutrition

Lee Jun Ha's Prison Tales 16
 |  2009-07-24 19:08
The year I turned 21, six new prisoners were sent to the Logging Section. Among them was a 20 year-old called Yoo Young Nam, who had been suffering from malnutrition since he was in the detention house.

He looked too small and meek too be a 20 year-old man. He had been living with his mother and sister Young Hee, who was three years his junior. From time to time he went over to China to beg for rice. Because of this, he had frequently been caught and dragged to the People’s Security Agency.

The first few times he was committed to a labor-training corps (a kind of a prison where those who commit minor transgressions, economic offenses and simple criminal offenses are sent. The National Security Agency is responsible for its administration, and prisoners are supposedly trained to develop loyalty to the party and the constitution through compulsory labor), but after his number of border transgressions started to increase he was sentenced to three years in prison and sent to Jeongeu-ri reeducation camp.

The sleeping bell rang, and I could hear Young Nam and the cell head talking. It reminded me of my first day in the reeducation camp, and I soon felt sympathy toward him.

But, as always, I was not going to talk to the new prisoners; instead I was just going to observe their personalities. Since the new ones had heard that the head was such a kindhearted person, they answered other people’s questions politely and promised to get along with others well.

The next day, when it was time for our meal I sat down beside the cell head without a word. Young Nam sneaked a look at me. Other new ones also kept staring at me, because I looked too young to be eating in such an exalted position.

At that time I was the foreman of the first team in our section. In the prison cells, the difference between a cell head, a foreman and other ordinary prisoners was very big. Even people over sixty had to pay respect to the cell head and the foreman. On the other hand, the cell head and the foreman talked casually to almost anyone.

Since I was a young man, I could not lead the unit with the cell head unless I played it tough; therefore I made sure that the new prisoners were not at ease in front of me. Meanwhile, the cell head had been in his position for so long that he could understand a person’s characteristics just by looking in his eyes.

I also developed the habit of taking time to observe people’s personalities. I could approximately discover whether they had the habit of bullying others or whether they were faithful, whether they were smart or whether they’d do absolutely anything for food.

Unlike in society, it was impossible to open one’s heart and maintain a natural relationship with others at the reeducation camp. This is why one could not lead a unit unless he could grasp others internal characteristics from their eyes. The first thing I did to help newcomers like YoungNam to adjust to life in the prison was to let them get used to the labor.

Reeducation camp is a place where people have to do incomparably heavy labor, get educated, cursed at and beaten up even in the prison cells. Extra determination and patience is required to live such a life. Therefore the duty of the cell head and I was to first strengthen them, and then lift them up once in a while.

I did not talk to the newcomers except during working hours. When they asked me something, I did not even answer them properly. Anyone who behaved tactlessly or tried to avoid labor, whether they were newcomers or senior prisoners, I cursed at.

Not only that, if there were people who attempted to blame others for their own faults, I beat them up. Nevertheless, I never lost their trust. Even if I cursed at them or hit them, every Sunday I made corn porridge for them and let them fill their empty stomachs; nobody looked down on me.

About two months after Young Nam was moved to our unit, I took a look at his features. High cheekbones, hollow eyes, temples with sunken earflaps, long ears and a slender neck.

“Young Nam, are you just going to die because of malnutrition?” I asked.

Surprised, he just stared at me.

“Young Nam,” I said sternly, “you cannot go home. Stop getting so absorbed in thoughts of eating.”

Generally, those who are on the brink of malnutrition tend to think of food, and it just made them worse. I could see symptoms of malnutrition from his appearance and attitude.

The cell head seconded my words.

“Young Nam, come here!” I told the boy.

I ordered him with a high hand. He came and sat in front of me. He thought he was quick, but his weak body was moving so slowly. He was nervous because I was looking at him sharply without saying a word. Meanwhile, everyone in the prison cell was silently gazing at me.

“Now go back to your place!”

He was even more dazed by that, and watched me carefully as he stood up.

“So, Young Nam, while you were on your way over here to me, didn’t you think about eating?”

It was not until then I smiled at him. It was my first smile for him in two months. The tense atmosphere in the cell broke down at once.

“Whoever feels exhausted, think of your family. We get three meals a day even if they are mostly corn. Our families are hardly getting by with porridge made from grass. Remember that,” I said.

My short speech made everyone go silent. The cell head, Young Nam, other prisoners and I had inevitably started to think about our beloved families.
 
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