On January 7, 2001, I witnessed an incident I can’t erase no matter how hard I try.
A heavy snow had started the day before, and was still falling when we went out to work in the morning. Everyone thought the day’s labor would be shoveling snow, but instead, every section was given the task of cutting wood. We took our axes and iron chains and headed to Wangol, which was about four kilometers away. We were in snow up to our knees. It took time to climb the mountain valley, so we needed to hurry up. However, the snow held us back and we only arrived at our destination at around eleven thirty. I had a strange feeling in my legs. There was snow all over my shoes and pants, and it was already frozen.
Half an hour after we started work, the heavy snow turned to sleet. Our clothes quickly got wet. We couldn’t even make a bonfire because of the sleet, so we just stood there, ate a scoop of rice and continued working. However, as we were on our way back to prison after work, the sleet suddenly cleared off and a piercing wind got up. The strong wind froze all our clothes in just a few seconds. When we got out of the valley, helping one another, it was past 4 in the afternoon. It was getting dark already.
The security officials and sentries were getting worried, so they started to hurry the prisoners along. Everyone was exhausted. My legs were shaking, and I didn’t have any energy left. The frozen crotches of my pants made it even more difficult to go on. All the prisoners were together so there was no point in trying to distinguish the sections. Lumber froze to the ground. When one person dragged his log over another’s log, there were screams and curses from the sentries. Time went by, twilight came, and the danger increased.
From then on, exhausted prisoners started to collapse one by one. We hadn’t even made it half way to the prison, but the night had already come. Finally, the executives assemble the prisoners in sections and announced, “Everyone, drop your lumber and just go! Help one another! It’s getting cold, so walk in arm in arm!”
Soon enough there were people who couldn’t go any further, and it was then that the executives started to panic. They called the cell heads and foremen forward and ordered us to carry those who couldn’t move. I took off my iron chains and kept pace, carrying someone called Kwang Ho. When I got tired, the cell head carried Kwang Ho; when the cell head got tired, I took my turn again. Despite this effort, the cell head and I were soon exhausted. Weak people walked slowly because their whole bodies were frozen. Even the strong ones were slow because they were carrying the collapsed. It was a disaster.
Finally, though, we saw the managers, sentries, clinic doctors, caterers and the 43 prisoners who had stayed behind in the prison coming towards us.
As soon as I let them take Kwang Ho, I started to show symptoms of exhaustion. The cell head was staggering from right to left, as if he were totally drunk. His mouth was numb with cold. Neither of us could speak, and we could barely walk. When we finally arrived at the prison gates, we saw disorderly prisoners all rushing in without even waiting for the roll call.
We went into the cell, where other prisoners poured warm water into our mouths and fed us. Even though the rice was cold, I came around when I ate it. Nevertheless, seven prisoners were still unconscious. It was past 10 already, but the corridor was still filled with noise as the clinic doctors and executives walked around. The cell head and I, along with the others who had been revived by the food, massaged the seven prisoners’ bodies. We heard the sound of their bones cracking as we stretched their bent arms and legs. We tried to give them some hot water we had brought from the kitchen, but we couldn’t open their mouths. The management instructed us, ‘If you can’t open their mouths, just break their teeth!” I put a spoon between teeth and twisted it until the teeth broke. I was able to pour some hot water through the crack. We continued to massage their bodies and feed them hot water, and finally there came a little warmth on their faces. By 2AM, all seven were back to normal.
Some were less lucky. That day a total of 47 prisoners fell unconscious and eight died. You couldn’t even count the number of people whose hands and feet got frostbite. My right big toe was frostbitten too, and I lost my toenail because of it. Among the 8 prisoners who died, one was Lee from the Loading Section. Of all moments, his mother and wife had come to visit him that afternoon. The prisoners came back at 10 in the evening, and his mother and his wife waited for him until 11 in front of the prison gate. His mother, when she heard her son was frozen to death, passed out. His wife begged them to let her see the body of her dead husband, but her request was rejected by the Visiting Official, who shouted heartlessly, “How dare you mourn a dead prisoner! Go home now!” The image of the woman sobbing as she called out her husband’s name with her passed out mother-in-law in her arms was passed on by other prisoners. I did not witness it myself, but I can feel their pain.
From then on, I saw the families of dead prisoners coming to visit and then going home sobbing so many times. All the prisoners were heartbroken when they saw those families crying and staring at the prison gate a hundred times. I don’t want to tell the world to feel sympathy for prisoners like me. Among the prisoners, there are some really bad people; however 70 percent of the prisoners are those who committed crimes by honest mistake.
Those who were really determined to commit a crime were probably only about 5% of the total. How come the other 95% don’t get to see their family and go back to their hometown when they die? Every nation has laws protecting the people’s safety. Those under legal restriction and those who failed to follow the law were the sons and daughters of the people. It is only natural for humans to want to be with their fathers, mothers, wives, children, siblings and friends. They were admitted to prison because of crimes that weren’t terrible. It was mortifying enough for them to die of malnutrition or labor accidents. Do they really have to die twice, with their corpses burned up on Mt. Bulmang? I can never forgive that.