Prisoners Forced to Work at a Frozen River during the Winter

The average winter temperature at the settlement was 20~30 degrees below zero in Celsius (4-22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit). In the winter of 1987, shortly after my arrival at the detention settlement, we were force to lay the foundation for the construction of a power plant scheduled to begin the next spring. Every morning, our task was to break the ice on the river, enter the water, and label the bottom of the river using large stones. There was no equipment. The only tools available were old shovels, picks and poles. Going into a frozen river at dawn during the cold winter felt like death. Nobody dared to be the first.

“You s.o.b! I am going to kill al of you unless you go into the river,” shouted an angry security officer. We took off our clothes and went into the river with only our pants on. All of us, skin and bone, were shivering from the utter cold. We worked seven hours in the water everyday.

In the beginning, our limbs felt numb form the freezing cold. Soon, it became difficult to bent our arms and knees – they had become as stiff as logs. Some of us began to fall into the water like the stiff logs that we had become. I felt the blood stop sunning in my legs and son they didn’t feel like legs at all. Some prisoners stood immobile in the water and cried, “Please kill me!”

At the end of the day, our fingers and toes were swollen and looked red as if they were burnt. The pain was so severe that it was difficult to go to bed at night. After months of working in the river, our fingers and toes eventually turned black and began to rot.

The Yodok detention settlement is situated at the foot of a high mountain and winter begins early. Water begins to freeze in mid September. The condition of severe undernourishment made the prisoners feel even colder. The average wither temperate is about 20 to 30 degrees below zero in Celsius (4-22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit)> hills and fields around are all covered with snow and the freezing cold wind made the poorly dressed prisoners feel extremely cold. No prisoners were free form frostbite. None of us had proper shoes, socks or hand gloves. The swollen hands and legs look red and give us such pain in the night that it was very difficult to asleep. No medical treatment was available. The best prisoners can expect was to soak hands and legs in a pan with cold water. The number of surviving fingers and toes from frostbite was an indication of telling how long a prisoner had been in the detention settlement.

One day in the winter of 1987, the security officers announced construction of a power plant in my first winter in the settlement. “All of you must feel honored with and proud of this opportunity to contribute to the welfare of the state by constructing a power plant!”

We whispered, “How many of us are going to be killed this time? How many of us would have saved fingers and toes form frostbite when the plant has been completed?”

This was how the winter work in the frozen river began if any prisoner stop moving in the river, the security officers shouted, “You s.o.b! You come here.” And they began to brutally beat the prisoners or push his head into water short of suffocation. We worked like this for seven hours everyday. Prisoners looked as though they would die soon form freezing and brutal beatings. They bled but, strangely, rarely died. If animals were that brutally beaten, they must have all died. However, many prisoners survived heavy labor work under the conditions of hunger, freezing and beatings. I believe that human beings were born with a very strong and miraculous life force.