Relatives of missing victims unable to move on 3 years later
HUDDLED in makeshift shipping container homes on a South Korean waterfront, relatives of the missing from the Sewol ferry disaster have endured a harrowing wait to recover the remains of their children.
Nearly three years ago, Lee Keum-hui’s daughter, Eun-hwa, went on a school trip and never returned.
Lee rushed to the island here, a five-hour drive from her home in Ansan, on the day the Sewol sank, hoping to bring her frightened daughter home. Since then, she has lived at Paengmok harbour, the closest port to the accident, unable to begin mourning.
“I had brought a change of clothes for my daughter... But, I have been waiting for more than 1,070 days now. Time stopped on April 16, 2014,” Lee said.
She recalled the night she first stared out at the dark sea that had taken her 16-year-old.
Eun-hwa is one of the nine victims whose bodies could still be trapped inside the Sewol, the 6,825-tonne ferry that emerged from the murky depths yesterday.
The vessel was carrying 476 people when it went down off this southwestern island, leaving 304 people dead — almost all of them schoolchildren — in one of the nation’s worst maritime disasters.
Lee and her husband, as well as four other relatives of missing victims, have set up temporary homes on a gravel lot near Paengmok harbour. The wind rattles the stones, and their showers are ice cold even in the depths of South Korea’s chilly winter.
“That’s nothing compared to what our daughters had to go through,” said Park Eun-mi, the mother of another missing student, Huh Da-yun.
“They’re in freezing cold water.”
Winter jackets, scarves and jeans are seen hanging in the shipping container where she lives with her husband, Huh Hong-hwan, a former steelworker. A small caricature portrait of Da-yun drawn by a wellwisher hangs on a wall below her school identification card.
In Korean culture, family members stop mourning for the dead after three years, but the relatives at Paengmok felt that without their children’s bodies, they were never given a chance to even begin.
“People treat us as one of the bereaved families, but we are different,” said Lee’s husband, Cho Nam-seong.
Lee walks down the harbour towards a lighthouse painted with a giant yellow ribbon — a symbol for the victims of the disaster. She stops and reads out the banners hanging on each side of the path.
“This is my favourite,” she said, pointing to one that read: “Let’s go home with mum.”
“My only wish is to be able to hold her in my arms again.”
The Sewol was finally brought to the surface yesterday. Salvage experts plan to transfer it to the nearby port of Mokpo, where it qill be thoroughly searched.
The relatives have been waiting for three years for the vessel to be raised, but a sudden sense of fear overtakes them when they think about the possibilities.
“We are scared our children may not be there. But, we... hope that we will find them. That sense of fear is unimaginable,” Lee said, breaking into tears.
She said even if Eun-hwa’s body was recovered, it would be difficult to return to her home in Ansan, where Eun-hwa’s room was being kept.
“That is where I spent time with Eun-hwa, so her absence will be even greater. But, when I think about how Eun-hwa would want her mum to live, she would want her mum to be happier, smile more and hurt less.” AFP
The ‘Sewol’ is seen during its salvage operations off Jindo in South Korea yesterday. (Inset) A relative of a missing victim crying.