Smoldering Memories

Yesterday was the 42 anniversary of the May 18th democracy movement in Gwangju, South Korea. If you want more information about this movement, you can read my post here or check out the 518 Archives.

I happened to be in Gwangju for the anniversary yesterday, so I wandered around the ACC and into the former Provençal office of Jeollanamdo. The provincial office played a pivotal role in the protest. It was claimed by the citizens of Gwangju, primarily students who were protesting the martial law in Korea, police brutality, freedom of speech and press, and workers’ rights. This happened early in the 10 days of violence and brutality the protesters endured from the military and police.

I was standing at the entrance of the provincial office looking around when a lady came up to me. She asked me if I knew where I was at. I told her yes, I’m familiar with the day’s and this building’s importance. She then goes on and tells me this story.

This building was where the last calls on the radio were for people to join the movement. They called, and people came to stand up against the oppression they were facing to fight for a better Korea.

At one point, the building housed 100 people. They knew the military was headed towards them, but the protesters chose to stay, including middle school students. They chose to stand up for their rights against oppression instead of fleeing to safety.

The military came in, killing anyone with a weapon and arresting everyone else. Those who were arrested were held for months without trial in mass holding cells where they were starved and tortured. Many didn’t survive.

Since the uprising, the government decided to remodel, patching up all the built holes and placing an elevator in the same room that called the people of Gwangju to action.

She then told me the mothers of the fallen asked the government to find proof of what happened in the building. They wanted the bullet holes uncovered and evidence to be shown of the violence their children had faced. Time and time again, the government said that they couldn’t find evidence of the gunfire; what little there was had all been patched up.

One day two of the mothers were tired of the government not listening to their demands. Wanting justice for their children went to Seoul to the Blue House. They then covered themselves with gasoline and lit them selfs on fire.

She said, “to us, this building is a living witness” to the horror and crimes. The government’s refusal to uncover the built holes was its refusal to recognize the deaths of the protesters. It was the physical representation of the people of Gwangju being silenced.

On the 42 anniversary of the uprising, yesterday was the first time the building was partially open to the public.

From the former provincial office, I wandered to the May 18th Archives. While walking through the archives, I was stopped by a different lady asking me if I’d been here. I told her yes, I wanted to revisit the museum today for the anniversary.

She then proceeded to tell me a bit about the importance of the movement, then she paused. I thought she was going to say goodbye but then she said;

“I remember. There are things that I remember, and it’s always there.”

She told me she was an elementary student at the time and heard a knock on the door. It was her neighbor bringing in a young man. He was covered from head to toe in something red.

We asked him she said, why are you covered in red.

He said we use Korean medicine to pour over our heads; that way, if the soldiers come, we can act dead, and they won’t take us.

She told me we let him hide in our home that night.

I can’t imagine the bravery that took. Every night during the 10-day uprising, the police and military would knock on doors, enter people’s homes without permission, and look for protesters. If you were caught housing a protester, they would arrest the lucky and kill the rest, including the children.

I got into the elevator to leave the archives, and this old man turned to me and started talking.

I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Korean.” He took a breath and started crying. I patted my heart because I didn’t know what else to do. How can you comfort a trama and grief so profound that it haunts you till you are only dust?

For more information on the Gwangju Democratic Movement check out the

518 Archives

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