“Jun Ha,” he said, “As you know, 80 percent of our section is suffering from malnutrition. So I was thinking maybe you could give five kilograms of your powder to the cell.”
“Okay. Let’s do that. Everyone’s having a hard time anyway, we should help one another.”
“Thank you, Jun Ha. Since you’re still young, I thought you were going to say no. I’m really grateful that you agreed.”
“Mother would also want me to share it with other people,” I concluded, truthfully.
Even though I had agreed to his request, my heart ached as I scooped up the powder, imagining how difficult it must have been for mother to prepare it. Of course, everyone in the cell was glad when we came in with the five kilograms.
We put water and the powder in a 70-liter iron tub and it swiftly turned into watery porridge. Seeing the grateful and happy people, I was glad too. For 58 people, only two small bowls of porridge were available but we could still fill our stomachs for a while. However, except for at that very moment, hunger was ever-present in the prisoners’ lives.
After the meal, the education soon started. One person stood at the front and read one sentence, and then the rest followed. The contents were the teachings of Kim Jong Il and a newspaper called ”A New Start.” It was only published at the prison.
After reading out loud for two and a half hours, it was time for us to sleep. However, it took time for the officials to check each section and lock the door. Only after all the processes were finished and a bell rang could actually go to sleep.
Then the cell was filled with silence, and soon I could hear snoring all around me. Exhausted, everyone was sleeping, but I could not sleep because my mother’s face kept coming up in my mind. Thinking of her carrying that heavy bag all the way here just for me, my heart ached anew.
Determination, bravery and spirit were important as well, but it was not easy to live in a prison where you are made to suffer over food.
Three times a day, 140 grams of corn rice, of which one third was imported yellow peas which were originally animal food, and smelly soup with one or two pieces of salted cabbage in it were served. Having to work like cows on such food, it was not difficult to find oneself suffering from malnutrition.
So we had to eat practically anything in order to survive. Grass, corn found in cow feces etc. Even cow feces look like bread to those who are ravenously hungry.
Mother visited me several times, but I always shared the powder with my close friends. So when mother ran out of money and could not visit me for four to five months, I experienced the most terrible hunger, almost falling victim to malnutrition myself.
When starving for 24 hours a day, absolutely anyone is susceptible to insanity. I, just like other people, ate just about everything I saw.
When time for weeding came, everyone at the reeducation camp was mobilized. We secretly took the newly sprouted cabbage leaves, corn seedlings, pepper seedlings and plantain; anything that wasn’t poisonous was eaten.
We were just like rabbits. We had to weed the fields with the hoe in two hands, because we were only skin and bones, so we held the plantain leaves in our mouths and bit them off without using our hands.
One day I was so starved that I couldn’t even move. I went to the warehouse manager to beg for powder. There was a time when he had asked for a bottle of oil mother brought for me, which I willingly gave him. I expected that he wouldn’t be merciless, so I went to the eating room. Words just didn’t come out of my mouth.
He unwelcomingly stared at me as he dispensed 500 grams of the powder to other prisoners. When everyone was gone, he asked me why I was there. He must have recognized me, but instead looked as if he hadn’t gotten anything from me.
It was not easy to do so, but I gathered myself up and asked politely.
“Please help me, just this once.”
“What are you saying?” he answered.
‘What an inhumane son of a bitch.’ Such thoughts were flying around in my mind but I held my tongue. Holding his hands tight, I begged him. “Please let me take some powder, just once.”
But he shook off my hand and yelled, raising his eyes. “Why the hell did you crawl up here to make such a fuss!”
I couldn’t take it anymore and cursed him. “You son of a bitch, you asked me to give you that oil! Go to hell!”
I was so angry that I couldn’t even go to sleep that night. I kept thinking about it, and came to the conclusion that if I kept “playing nice” like now, I could be trampled to death, let alone emerge alive.
The only way to survive among a herd of coyotes was to be the most brutal and cunning one. I didn’t have to remain humane anymore. From then on, my eyes were venomous at every single moment.
I was still young then, so I had treated the older, new prisoners with respect; later on they just tried to put me down. I also shared my powder with some people I liked and also with some others who asked me for help. However, when they were visited and given powder by their family, they treated me like a stranger; they were truly no different from beasts.
After that incident, I became a completely different person. I paid no respect to the older prisoners and whenever they skived off their work, I yelled at them like crazy and even cursed them, even if it didn’t have anything to do with me. The cell head was so astonished to see me completely changed, but didn’t say anything about it because there was nothing wrong in what I was saying.
It was the most difficult period in my prison life when mother came to visit me again. I was so glad to see her and for the first time I shed tears in front of her. I thoughtlessly asked her to come and visit me once a month because I was beginning to suffer from malnutrition.
She tried so hard to visit me and, instead of being grateful and giving out a smiling face, I had asked her to come once a month and sobbed. What a crybaby I was. Nevertheless, she told me that she would come and visit me once a month no matter what, before motioning me to go in and eat.
At that time I was so hungry that I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye. Only after finishing off one kilogram of rice, one kilogram of rice cake, pork soup and kimchi, did I start to worry about mother. Whether she had something to eat on the way home and whether she had enough money for the fare.
I was so sorry about allowing her to see my weakness and not saying a proper goodbye that I sobbed as I ate the last piece of rice cake.
She had to manage her life by eating only porridge in order to bring me those rice cakes, rice and soup. Instead of saying thank you, I asked her to visit me more often. What kind of person would ask such a favor? I was so sorry back then that, until this very day, I still regret what I said.