It was cold and crisp on Christmas morning; their breaths made small white clouds in the half-collapsed room. Jimin recalled other Christmas Eves, when he’d roamed around the streets all night with his friends to enjoy the night without curfew—the only other such night was New Year’s Eve—while his mother and Misern caroled door to door with other church members. This year, it was nothing like the previous three years.
Rats scurried away as he came out to the courtyard. Sunlight penetrated through the debris, laden with fresh snow.
Misern followed him to the gate, shivering. “When are we leaving, Oppah?”
“When everyone does.”
“People are leaving now. Can we go too?”
“They are following the president’s decree. He wants to be on the safe side this time. He doesn’t want to make the same mistake as he did in June. We still have time.”
“Several days. Or even longer, people say.”
“It’s too cold here.” She shuddered, her haggard face turning blue. “We are too hungry and too lonely. Mr. Min said we have to get out ahead of other people.”
“But Father still might come for us.”
“I don’t think he will. We waited all this time and he hasn’t come.”
His sister was right. He had little hope that his father would come now, after more than five weeks since he was here last. Not having proper papers wasn’t a good excuse since the refugees from the North had been flooding the streets without any valid papers. He had started to trust him after they arrived at Hadong and after Mr. Min told them he’d been here twice. But that trust had nearly dissipated and the old grudge against him had returned. Why wouldn’t he come back, especially now when he should know the situation would be bad? Maybe he cared about Misern and him a little, but something more important for his ego came up. Perhaps a woman. Perhaps some dubious honor. He had always put himself above his family. Or he went back to Hadong for his own safety, thinking that Grandma was alive and she would provide a safe haven.
Jimin’s unspoken hope was more for the chance that Sora might turn up. He would never see her again if they went away from here. If she were somewhere in Seoul, it seemed likely that she would come by in case her relatives had come and left a message or something and she would see his note on the gate.
But now as he looked at his sister’s small skeletal frame, a sudden feeling of futility came over him. Maybe he’d dragged it out too long. Perhaps she had never come to Seoul. Or she had come and left after seeing the ruin of her former home. He wasn’t sure how he would feel when he actually saw her. How did she look now? Wasn’t he merely clinging to the feelings he had before the war? The more he thought about it, the more it seemed that he was trying to clench onto the past rather than the present.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s leave today when I come back.”
“Really?” Misern’s emaciated face brightened up.
“Yes, after I earn some money to buy food.”
“Yes, I promise, Misern. I’ll be back soon.”
“Are we going to go to Ockdo this time?”
He narrowed his eyes. Ockdo had been on the backburner for quite some time. Meeting up with Sora had been his top priority. And if Sora didn’t want to go, he didn’t want to go either. But his little sister had been anxious to go there since Mother had died. She really believed that she was waiting for them right there, and he didn’t want to snuff out that hope in her. He had no idea how to get there without his father, but he resolved to go back one way or another soon. Even by wheedling the police chief’s men.
“Yes,” he said at length, looking his sister in the eye.
“You promise, Oppah?”
“Yes, I promise.”
Before closing the gate, he stared at his sister, looking so small and helpless, her teeth rattling. He wondered what would happen if they couldn’t get on a train, either because of too many people or because of no money. He regretted not leaving with the old man a week ago.
“Bolt the gate tight,” he said, “and get under the quilt and try to stay warm.”
He listened to the sound of the wooden bolt sliding and of the dwindling footsteps inside the porch.
Then he walked away.
The thoroughfare was full of refugees coming down south and of Seoul residents leaving their homes with their luggage. He stopped by the bulletin board. As usual it was filled with the war news.
The Chinese Hordes Cross 38th Parallel.
General Walker Meets His Tragic Death: The commander of Eighth Army had been thrown into a ditch from his jeep that was speeding toward the frontline on an icy road congested with retreating troops.
A picture of Hungnam port engulfed in huge fireballs, set off by the allied forces after the evacuation of soldiers and their equipment and the refugees.
A picture of motley clothed men filing off at a run; the caption below said they were heading toward the Defense Militia training camps near Busan.
Jimin walked down the street, alongside the refugee column. At the roadside was a woman standing with a distressed look, a baby on her back. Beside her were two cranky children, about two and four. An old man and an old woman, probably her in-laws, were sitting on the curb, looking exhausted. Beside them were two bulky cloth-wrapped bundles.
“Do you need any help?” he said as he approached them in the tone he used when he was seeking work.
“Yes, it would be great if you can carry one of these bundles for us,” the woman said, lighting up. “We’ll pay you.”
“To where?” Jimin felt Christmas was special after all, to find work this easy.
“Yongdungpo train station.”
“That far?” Jimin scowled. An hour or two to the river, another hour after that, two more hours to come back. It would be too long for his sister to wait alone in that cold place, worried sick. He’d never been able to get a job lasted that long.
The woman whispered something to the old woman, who took out her jumoney dangling inside her traditional white skirt and counted some money out loud, and then gave it to the woman.
“Would this be enough?” The woman held out the money in her hand.
It was roughly three or four times more than what he could earn from the marketplace, and he was tempted. He imagined how happy Misern would be seeing the money and food. Yet her agonized face five months earlier while waiting for Mother flickered in his head.
“It’s a lot of money. But I can’t be away from my place that long.”
“What about to the river crossing then?” the woman said.
“Here, you take this money.” She thrust her hand that held the money out to him. “You look like an honest boy we can trust.”
“All this for up to the Han River?”
He couldn’t believe his luck. Maybe this Christmas was extra special. Maybe his mother was looking after him and his sister. He weighed the two bundles with his arm. One of them was heavy and the other light. He lifted the heavier one onto his shoulder. The woman placed the other bundle on her head.
The trip to the Han River took a long time, more than three hours. Growing more anxious, he kept asking the woman, who was wearing a watch, what time it was. The toddler and the old couple were very slow and they had to rest often. When they reached the river, he couldn’t just leave the helpless people alone. So he helped them across the softened ice, slippery underneath, in a single column along a blazed trail of solid surface, then all the way to the train station while worrying sick about his sister. By the time he left them in front of the station packed with refugees, it was well into the afternoon.
As he ran along the street after crossing the river back, he saw an army truck with a melon-green canvas top standing by the curb. Two neatly dressed soldiers—their khaki pants freshly creased and the bold white letters of HUN BYONG (Military Police) prominent on their black helmets—were standing nearby. He’d seen such a scene at a distance, more frequently these days, and thought that they were after army deserters. But now they were blocking his way and he tried to veer off to an alley. One of them shouted, “Halt!” thrusting his carbine toward him.
Exasperated, Jimin looked at the man, who motioned him with his carbine toward the truck.
“Let me see your resident card,” the man said as Jimin approached him.
“I don’t have one. I’m sixteen.”
“You look older. At least eighteen.”
“I’m sixteen,” Jimin repeated, frowning.
“You are lying to avoid conscription. Into the truck!” With the muzzle of his carbine, he pushed him toward the back of the truck.
“I’m not lying,” Jimin protested and stepped backward, trying to get away from the truck, but instead getting cornered. “I was born in September 1934. I used to be—”
“Shut up and get in!” the MP shouted, pushing him with the barrel.
“My little sister is all alone in the cold at—”
The man stabbed his abdomen hard with the muzzle of the carbine, and Jimin doubled over with excruciating pain.
“One more word, and I’ll kill you,” the man screamed. “Get in!” Repeating his command he kept jabbing him in the haunches with his rifle as if trying to fork him over into the truck.
Jimin turned to his side and elbowed the man sharply in the ribs. The man faltered a few steps backward and Jimin darted forward. But the other MP was standing a few meters in front of him, his carbine leveled at him. Jimin turned back only to be confronted by the first man, just a step away, ready to discharge his rifle.
Jimin kicked him in the shin and tried to run past, but the man swung his weapon around, screaming in pain, and hit him hard in the small of his back. As Jimin tottered and tried to recover, the other MP rammed his rifle butt into Jimin’s belly. And the first MP swung his carbine into Jimin’s shoulder blades and screamed, “Gae saeki, I’ll kill you.” Jimin staggered and fell.
The two started to kick him with their shiny boots and thumped their rifle butts all over him. He tried to stand upright to fight back, but they kept thwacking him until he became limp. He thought they would really shoot him if he resisted further. He didn’t feel his own pain; only his sister’s. After a few minutes they lifted him up as they shouted obscenities and shoved him into the back of the truck.
The truck was nearly packed with captives kneeling under the watchful eyes of an MP standing over them, poised to discharge his carbine for any sudden move. After pushing in several more victims, the two MPs got into the front seats, and the truck sped to Yongsan Middle School, a short distance away.
The MPs corralled them into an unheated classroom, which was already crowded with other captives sitting on chairs or directly on the cold floor. Before they left, the MPs made Jimin and another man, who was as badly bruised as Jimin, stand aside, and told the soldiers in charge that the two were “vicious dogs” and must be handled accordingly.
As the door closed behind the MPs, one of the three soldiers, a corporal, told the two to go to the back corner where several others with cuts and bruises, their faces overwrought with anger and despair, had been squatting. Then the corporal said to the newcomers, “Welcome to Defense Militia. Thank you for volunteering to fight for our fatherland.” The captives all shouted their disagreements, and the other two soldiers leveled their rifles on them.
When the room became quiet, the corporal said, “You’ll start off for the training camp in the morning.” He then laid out the rules for everyone to obey: no talk, no disturbance, no infraction, and anyone who needs to go to the latrine should quietly raise his hand.
Jimin tried to appeal his case to the corporal, who said his job was to deliver them to the training camp, nothing else, and told him to shut up; otherwise, he would be punished severely. The other man who came with him tried to press his case as well, but the corporal said, “Shut up!” as soon as he opened his mouth.
One of the men squatting near Jimin, about forty years old, suddenly stood up, his face blue with anger, and shouted, “You think you can get away with this atrocity? Nobody in this room has volunteered. Each of us has come out for urgent matters. Drag your own fathers and brothers to fill your quota if you don’t want to be executed for this crime. Or shoot yourselves if you don’t want to go to hell.”
The corporal nodded at the other soldiers, who came toward the yelling man, and plunged their rifle butts into his belly.
The rifle butts were the answers to every complaint.
Trucks continued to come and go incessantly, bringing more people in. As daylight receded, Jimin became more desperate, but he could do nothing about the situation. Every bone and every muscle in his body ached, but he didn’t feel his pain. His mind was filled with anxiety about his sister—how cold, how hungry, and how confused and worried she would be. What would she do, alone in the darkness? He wanted to steal a rifle and storm out, but every time he looked up, the soldiers stared icily at him. If he had a weapon, he would kill everyone in this cruel country. He felt like his head would burst with worries about his sister. He felt like screaming his head off, but he was sure they would kill him. Calm down, he told himself. If you get killed here, what would happen to Misern?
The night was worse than any other night, a thousand times worse than the night he buried Shin Hoon.
In the morning the captives were divided into fifty-person platoons. Each man was given a ball of rice, about the size of a fist, with a touch of bean paste on one side. Then, as a unit of ten platoons together, they marched out of the school, at a run, and down the highway; soldiers, marching alongside each platoon, escorted them.
They crossed the Han River on a pontoon bridge—guarded by American soldiers at both ends—alongside the damaged railroad bridges and then marched at a run on the highway.
Around noon the officer and the soldiers who were escorting them tried to find a place to feed them. But with no success.
“The law was created without a budget,” one of the escorting soldiers said to the platoon while resting. “All we can offer to civilians are promissory notes. But who would honor the note from the government that’s running away? Who would care about the unknown future when they themselves are facing starvation right now?”
“Initially people sympathized with the poor draftees or they succumbed at gunpoint,” another soldier said. “But there’s a limit to what anybody can do, and there’s no way for the civilians along the way to feed all of the men, wave after wave, coming down the highway. As we go farther south, the conditions become worse because more and more draftees are converging from everywhere toward Busan. So you all must be prepared. Otherwise you won’t make it.”
Most of the five hundred men and boys were very weak by then, but they were ordered to march again with hungry stomachs. After nightfall, they stopped at an elementary school. When the sweat dried, everyone started to shiver, and some of the men brought out student desks and chairs to the schoolyard and set them on fire. By the time the escorting officer managed to coax the townspeople to provide a small ball of rice for each person, more than a dozen campfires were going. The soldiers left them alone. After all, they were responsible for delivering them all the way to the destination with as many people alive as possible, and a day of marching together had forged a semblance of human connection with their platoon. As the night deepened, they tried to send everyone to sleep in the unheated classroom without any blankets, but people came out to the campfires to warm themselves, bringing more desks and chairs and, when those ran out, the sidings of the school building.
In this way they marched on icy roads in the coldest weather in anyone’s memory. They were lucky if each man could get a small ball of rice a day. They slept in cold places without blankets, shivering, sometimes warming themselves with campfires. They burned whatever they could get their hands on. The escorting soldiers were humans, too, and they didn’t treat them too harshly and some of them went beyond their duties to protect their men.
On the way, many men succumbed to hunger and fatigue even though they had slowed down and rested often as everyone’s condition weakened. Of the fifty people in Jimin’s platoon, fourteen died before the sixth day. As time went on Jimin stopped counting how many days had passed and how many in his platoon had died. His physical condition had flagged badly and his body couldn’t bear the rigors of marching, but that was nothing compared to his mind and spirit, which had died before the first night on the road. He had tried various tactics to escape, to no avail. He struggled along only because of his determination to survive, thinking of his sister in the cold and dark place at night. He had to survive and go back and rescue her, no matter what.
Well before they reached Daejon, everyone in his platoon, including himself, knew that he would be the next one to die. He was so weak that he couldn’t keep up even when they slowed to a walk because of him. They stopped in front of a rundown roadside house for a short rest, and they proceeded without him, leaving him to die alone. He knew why. Digging a grave in the frozen earth made them delay more and caused more fatalities. They had to reach Busan before all of them perished.