I had been in the detention house just eight days when mom first came to visit. It was about 11 in the morning when the block guard came into my cell.
“Jun Ha! Word has it that your mom tried to block the car of the Safety Agency Chief at the front gate. She was insisting that she be allowed to feed you in this freezing place. Not everyone’s mother is like that. You’re lucky to have her. You should always remember that.”
When I heard the guard’s words I started to weep like a child.
“Someone said something about the funny shape of her stomach. Turns out she had put your bowl of rice under her jacket to keep it warm.”
I followed the guard to the designated visiting room. Mom was inside, nearly frozen stiff.
“Jun Ha, you’re hungry, aren’t you? Are you ok? You’re not hurt? You’re cold, huh? I brought you some clothes. Why don’t you put them on first.”
“I’m fine Mom. Don’t worry.”
Putting on the clothes that mom had brought dispelled my worries about being cold. But the visit was interrupted even before the allowed five minutes had passed.
“Mom, you’d better hurry and go. It’s better if you’re not here when the political director (person in charge of political ideology) shows up.”
The cell guard was getting upset, so mom and I were separated before we had had a chance to say much at all. After her brief visit, mom asked the warden to pass on the rice she had brought, but I never got my hands on it. The guards devised some scheme, and eventually it was an inmate who did the guards’ dirty work as a spy among the inmates that got it.
Five days after my meeting with mom, I devised a plan so that I could see her again. I had wanted to spend just one night with mom before going to the reeducation camp. Now I pretended that my appendix had ruptured. Beginning at around 4 P.M. I held my stomach and writhed in pretend pain.
A guard called Lee Chong Su was on duty at the time. He didn’t seem to care one bit whether I lived or died. From where he was sitting in the guards’ quarters he went as far as to come and close the metal gate of the room, then reported nothing to his seniors. Pretending to have a ruptured appendix is easier said than done. The inmates in my cell knew I was just putting on a show.
“Ahhh…please~ help me!”
No matter how much I screeched and squirmed, the guard acted like it was nothing. His watch duly ended and a young 22-year old guard named Seong Hyuk took his place.
“Which son-of-a-bitch is making all the racket? That prick needs to learn to keep his mouth shut! Who is it?”
The guard, spotting my writhing figure on the floor, grabbed the oak club that was near the stove and yelled, “Hey—Chang Ho! Drag that bastard over here!”
Some inmates dragged me over to the cell gate and laid me down just below the food hole. Seong Hyuk put his hand through the hole and cracked me on the head with his club. My head started to bleed but I kept thinking if I could just endure this for a bit it would be my ticket to seeing my mother’s face again. Clubbing or no clubbing, I kept squirming and holding my stomach.
The guard gave me a quick glance over and said, “You murdering bastard—rot in hell!” and spat in my face.
At around 10 that night as the guards changed again, my “condition” was finally reported to the cell-overseer. When the overseer arrived at the cell he quietly called Chang Ho over, asked if I was just faking and then instructed him and some other inmates to bring me there.
My hands and feet were cuffed, and then Chang Ho carried me on his back to the military hospital.
I could remember that once, in middle school, I had carried my friend Young Chun to hospital when his appendix ruptured. Because of that, I remembered very clearly what the doctor has asked him and what the examination process was like. I knew exactly what answers I would have to give to the doctor in this case.
Once we arrived at the hospital, the doctor pressed my stomach here and there. He asked my guard escort when the pain had started, and then told me that a blood test was not possible at the time because no-one was around to do it. He had a look of helplessness on his face.
From about the time I entered the doors of the hospital I had an unexpected fear come over me. I had suffered the guard’s blows to the head and the bleeding so that I could get there, but was now seriously concerned by the fact that at any moment they might cut open my stomach and begin surgery.
While the doctor inspected me, the guard escort and Chang Ho waited outside, leaving the doctor and me alone in the operating room.
“You’re faking this aren’t you? Frankly, you’ve got too much color to be sick.”
“Huh? Well, now that I’m here I don’t really feel sick anymore. I don’t need surgery—I’m feeling much better now.”
Because I had said so boldly that I was no longer in pain and therefore didn’t need surgery when the doctor had simply asked to see whether I was really sick or not, the doctor started to worry. He took this to mean that my appendix had now erupted so I could no longer feel the pain!
Thus, the doctor decided that immediate surgery was necessary. He scolded the escort guard for bringing in a person whose appendix was already ruptured.
Seong Hyuk, who earlier had been kicking and beating me with his club said, “Jun Ha, I’m going to call your mom. So when you get done with the surgery, you will see her.” He had the look of a nervous dog on his face.
All my clothing was removed, and as I was taken to the operating room my heart really started to thump. After laying me out on the operating table the doctor bound my legs to the table and covered my face with a white cloth.
Surgery without anesthetic was indescribably painful. That knife cutting into my stomach was unbearable, and so nauseating that my whole body shook constantly.
After looking at my insides the doctor pulled back the cloth from my face and asked, “Are you sure your stomach was hurting?”
“Doctor,” I begged him; “I just wanted to see my mother. I lied about being sick. I wasn’t trying to escape. Please just let me see my mother for a few days while I recover.”
The doctor knew that I was inside for murder, but for some reason was willing to trick the guards. He approved my admission to hospital. As the doctor was stitching up my severed stomach, for reasons I didn’t understand, my legs were all contorted and my whole body shook and shivered.
After my stomach was stitched I couldn’t even stand up on my own. Perhaps it was during the surgery that, trying to cope with the pain, I’d somehow strained my arm. It became so stiff that I couldn’t even bend it or use it to support myself.
With the doctor’s help I could just barely walk, and was eventually back in my clothes in hospital room number 204. But when I smelled the blood on the floor of the operating room my head started to spin like a top and the nausea returned. I still don’t remember how I got to the second floor of the hospital.
I was lying down in the patient’s room when I woke up to the sound of mom crying. The pain didn’t subside until seven the following morning.
The stitching was supposed to be removed by the doctor after a week but, thanks to him, wasn’t actually taken out for 10 days. I went back to the detention center the day the stitches came out. At the front door of the safety agency I shook hands one-by-one with friends and neighbors and went back inside via the iron front gate.
I tried hard not to let myself cry. When I saw my mother, collapsed on the ground and weeping with two hands over her mouth, I simply forced a smile and waved. (to be continued)