1000 Days of Anguish: Families of the Missing Sewol Passengers

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Paengmok Port sits at the southwestern tip of the Korean peninsula. It is the farthest point reachable by ground transportation, about 400 kilometers from South Korea’s capital Seoul. This tiny, obscure port, normally used to transport villagers and goods to nearby islands, became a site of pilgrimage following the Sewol ferry sinking. It is the closest port to the accident site, about 25 kilometers away, and where hundreds of relatives waited in vain for the return of their loved ones starting on Apr. 16, 2014.

The seawall, once bare concrete, is now adorned with memorabilia. Handmade tiles with the 304 victims’ names and colorful drawings of flowers and stars are pasted on the inner wall of the walkway. Yellow flags line the fence and flap in the wind as bells chime, adding to the forlorn atmosphere. The yellow ribbon – the defining symbol of the Sewol – is painted on the red lighthouse, which has been dubbed the “lighthouse of waiting.” Visitors read the banners carefully and take photos of the memorabilia, their eyes often red with tears. One banner written in English stands out: “There are still PEOPLE inside the sunken ferry. Please help us bring them back home… all the way to the very last one!”

Off the seawall and the parking lot of the port, there is a small colony of temporary houses that could easily pass as a construction site or lodging for fishermen. But it is marked by a small altar housing the funerary portraits of the Sewol victims. This colony has become second home to the families of the Sewol passengers whose bodies have still not been recovered. The families have been waiting in this place for the ferry to be salvaged and to recover their children’s and relatives’ remains.

(L) On Apr. 17, 2014, Heo Heung-hwan waits anxiously inside the Jindo Gymnasium for the news of his daughter Da-yoon's rescue from the sunken ferry. / (R) Nearly three years later, Da-yoon's body is still missing and Heo's excruciating wait continues indefinitely.
(L) On Apr. 17, 2014, Heo Heung-hwan waits anxiously inside the Jindo Gymnasium for his daughter Da-yoon’s rescue from the sunken ferry. / (R) Nearly three years later, Da-yoon’s body is still missing and Heo’s excruciating wait continues indefinitely. (Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé)

“People don’t know that we are still here waiting. We feel very isolated,” says Park Eun-mi, the mother of Heo Da-yoon. Da-yoon is one of the four missing students from Danwon High School. Two teachers and three other passengers – a father and son, and a woman – are also still missing; their remains are believed to be trapped inside the sunken ferry. Park and her husband Heo Heung-hwan have been living in the colony at Paengmok Port for the past two years, along with Lee Geum-hui and Cho Nam-seong, the parents of another missing student, Cho Eun-hwa, and Kwon Oh-bok, who is related to the missing father-son duo, Kwon Jae-geun and Kwon Hyeok-kyu.

From Jindo Gymnasium to Paengmok Port

I witnessed pandemonium when I entered the Jindo Gymnasium on Apr. 17, 2014, one day after the sinking. The gymnasium is 17 km away from Paengmok Port and was being used as an emergency shelter for the families of the then-“missing” passengers. Inside, people were walking in and out with dazed looks on their faces. Mats and blankets of tacky colors covered the main court in disarray, and indecipherable murmurs hummed over the live news coverage on a large TV screen. Under the harsh, florescent light, the relatives, reporters, volunteers and even con artists were all lumped together into a faceless human mass. I happened to eavesdrop on one conversation while trying to find a relative to interview: “If you pay up 100,000,000 won [US$90,000 at the exchange rate then], I’ll get your children out of the ship.”

At the same time, Paengmok Port had turned into a madhouse isolated from the rest of South Korea. As precious time slipped away, the relatives became increasingly antsy. Dead bodies were pulled out of the sea, with no sign of additional rescue; one after another, wailing mothers collapsed and were carried away in ambulances. Journalists from South Korea and abroad rushed after anything news- or picture-worthy, sometimes fighting with one another and leaving little to no space for relatives to grieve in peace. Officials and rescue workers moved about looking confused.

As those more fortunate families — ones that successfully claimed relatives’ bodies — left one by one to have funerals, the Jindo Gymnasium became less and less crowded. Upon returning to the gymnasium 30 days after the sinking, I found the place eerily quiet in comparison to my previous time there. By then, the number of the missing passengers had decreased to 23. The number eventually dropped to nine by the end of October 2014 and has stayed there ever since. Media attention shifted to those actively protesting and fighting. The madness subsided to unbearable stillness, and the uncertainty of when and whether they would find their relatives’ bodies at all has since haunted and paralyzed the remaining families.

“At first we hoped for the return of our children, but eventually we began congratulating each other on recovering the children’s bodies,” Lee Geum-hui said of the Sewol families’ collective experience in Jindo during those initial weeks. She couldn’t have known then that most parents would find their children’s bodies within a month or two, but her own suffering would continue indefinitely. “Now we are the minority of the minority, nine remaining out of 304.”

The search mission for the bodies ended on Nov 11, 2014, and the South Korean government officially announced on Apr. 11, 2015 that the Sewol would be salvaged. The past three years have been agonizing for the families of the missing passengers. While those parents who found their children’s bodies were able to hold funerals and move on to fight for truth and justice, the families of the missing passengers have been stuck in limbo, traumatized by their experience of isolation and abandonment. Their lives came to a complete halt with no sense of closure, and finding the relative’s bodies became their sole purpose of living.

Portrait of Lee Geum-hui and Cho Nam-seong, parents of the missing student Cho Eun-hwa, at Paengmok Port. (Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé)

Waiting for the Salvage Operation

Life at Paengmok Port is slow and defined by simple routines. Even the news of President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment is relatively unimportant here; for the remaining families it makes little difference. All they think and talk about is the salvaging operation and locating the bodies.

Howling wind clashes into the walls of the 15-square-meter temporary shelters and the communal family lounge in a steel container. As the wind becomes stronger and waves higher, ships parked at a nearby dock make a sharp, wailing sound. At night, it is even more unsettling and ominous, leading to sleepless and worrisome nights. In the lounge, Lee Geum-hui cracks light jokes and makes exaggerated gestures as the mood grows grave. If the wind is this strong here, the families say, it is going to be even stronger at the accident site; the barge and crane will have to move out, further delaying the salvaging operation.

The accident site in Maenggolsudo is known to have the second strongest tidal current in South Korea, and the salvaging operation has faced numerous technical challenges. Multiple delays have sparked suspicion that the government was intentionally stalling until the Sewol Investigation Commission disbanded.

“It is as though we are held hostage by the government,” chuckles Cho Nam-seong, Eun-hwa’s father. The remaining families have refrained from openly criticizing the government for fear that it would create more tension and delay in the already-strained salvaging operation. “Think about it this way. If some children are kidnapped, the first natural reaction from their parents would be to plead for their safe return. Punishing the kidnapper comes only after that,” says Cho.

Ever since the end of the search operation, the Heos and the Chos have been trying all they can to speak up and push the government to raise the ship. The Heos staged protests in Hongdae and in front of the presidential office in Seoul; the Chos journeyed to regional town-hall meetings and protests, averaging 400 kilometers of travel per day between March 2015 and March 2016. Now all four of them go to candlelight protests all over South Korea to plead with people, to remember the sinking and to keep paying attention until the ship is raised. It is as though they are deliberately pushing themselves, just so that they can continue to survive this excruciating ordeal.

 
“The wait is indeed nerve-wracking. Da-yoon might not want this for me because it’s too difficult, but I still want to find her and give her a proper funeral. That’s all I can do and why I live now,” says Park Eun-mi.

Park shows a picture of Da-yoon on her smartphone screen. I have only seen Da-yoon in her school ID picture, which became her funerary portrait. On the screen she is wearing glasses and they make her look younger and shyer.

“Da-yoon never liked being photographed. One day on our way back from school, I made her sit down and took her photos with my phone. Had I taken them with her phone, she would have deleted them. This is all I have left of her now.” Park’s voice trembles when talking about Da-yoon, as though being physically shaken by memories of her daughter. In a family portrait taken just three days before the Sewol’s sinking, all four family members are happily smiling, not knowing the fate that will befall them.

“Da-yoon was adamant that she wouldn’t go on that school field trip, but I thought it was part of the school curriculum and she shouldn’t miss out. I even called her teacher to help persuade her. Now I regret it every day.”

Families Hold On Together

While their parents wage this battle, Da-yoon’s older sister Seo-yoon and Eun-hwa’s older brother Seong-hyeon have been left to fend for themselves in Ansan. One day before New Year’s Eve, just two weeks ago, Seo-yoon visited Paengmok Port and the family was united again. Heo, a shy but friendly man, grilled beef steaks with a faint smile, while the mother and daughter ate and talked. Heo hadn’t seen his daughter for about two months. Lee Geum-hui joined the dinner and looked at the Heos with a touch of envy. Her son Seong-hyeon has a heart condition and severe trauma and does not want to come down to Paengmok Port. Park tenderly combed her fingers through Seo-yoon’s hair, and smiled, bringing a fleeting touch of warmth and normalcy to this site of unending sadness. This is what their lives would have been like during any normal holiday season had tragedy not struck them.

“If I give up now, I’m afraid Seo-yoon might take it to mean that I can give up on her, too. I would like eventually to tell her, ‘We have found your sister, so go on and live your life as you wish,’” says Park.

(L) The Heos had a family portrait taken just three days before the ship’s sinking. The body of Da-yoon, in yellow, is one of the nine missing. (Source: Park Eun-mi) /(R) Portrait of the Heos inside their temporary housing at Paengmok Port.

The 1,000 days of waiting have taken a physical, emotional and financial toll on the remaining families. They sustain themselves on loans and donations from various civic groups. After nearly three years, their ordeal might finally be coming to an end. The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries announced last month that they expect the ship to be raised by the end of March. But after having endured many delays, the families are still paralyzed by an undercurrent of profound fear – that they may be the last one remaining, to bear the burden and stigma of the Sewol and be pitied forever.

“Sometimes I wonder whether we can ever return to normal life after three years of living like this. And what if other families found their relatives and we didn’t? What if we are the last one remaining? And what would happen if we did find Eun-hwa? I don’t know whether we can hold ourselves together either way.”

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