Gwangju massacre still echoes for loved ones

Posted on : 2012-05-18 15:19 KST Modified on : 2012-05-18 15:19 KST
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 1980. The text is an excerpt from Gang-su’s niece’s journal where she mourns losing her uncle before she was born. (provided by Lee-Gang-joon)
1980. The text is an excerpt from Gang-su’s niece’s journal where she mourns losing her uncle before she was born. (provided by Lee-Gang-joon)

By Jeong Dae-ha, Gwangju correspondent

Former civil engineer Lee Gang-jun, 51, lost his twin in May 1980. His brother, older by five minutes, was like his other half. Gang-su had passed his high school equivalency test and was getting ready for his college entrance exam when he joined the demonstrations in Gwangju on the 18th. Gang-jun himself joined on the 22nd, and ended up meeting his brother while watching over the armory at the old South Jeolla Provincial Office, where the citizens’ army leadership had been staying.

Like many Korean siblings, the Lee brothers share one of the same given names.

“My brother was bringing oxygen cylinders over to the clinic from Gwangju Military Hospital,” Gang-jun said. On the evening of May 26, the day before the New Military Group launched its bloody crackdown, the twins said goodbye, each pleading with each other to “be careful.” It was the last time they ever saw each other.

At around four the next morning, headband-wearing Korean regular army soldiers burst into the provincial office and opened fire. Gang-jun was struck by a bullet that came through a window and ricocheted off a mirror in the night watchman‘s room, which was being used for the armory. His cheekbone was fractured, and shrapnel became lodged at the base of his nose. Even when bloodied and battered, his thoughts were of his brother. Some time later, perhaps around six o’clock, he heard Gang-su’s voice among the citizen soldiers lying face down on the plaza with their hands tied behind their backs. “I’m studying to retake the entrance exam,” he was saying. He’s alive, thought Gang-jun.

But Gang-ju came home cold and dead. The bullet had pierced through his right chest and armpit. Gang-jun could not believe it. When he asked a forensic pathologist to determine the cause of death in 1997, just before the body was moved from a cemetery in Gwangju’s Mangwol neighborhood to the May 18th National Cemetery, it was because he wanted the truth to come out. “My brother’s skull was caved in, and even the specialists couldn’t figure out what the marks were caused by,” he said. Gang-jun believes that his brother died during torture at the Sangmudae military base. After his death, soldiers shot him to create the impression that he died from a bullet would instead of complications suffered during torture.

“I would go to the cafeteria in the provincial office for rice balls, and I would see so many unidentified bodies,” he said. “Some of them had their heads cut off. I was enraged. And every time, I prayed.

"I used to cry as I went to eat," he recalled. "So I never had any thought of going back home [even if the soldiers came by]. The same went for most of the other people who stayed until the end. We were going to fight to the death."

After being treated at the military hospital, Lee was taken to the Sangmudae military base. He was released from Gwangju prison in September with a suspended sentence. He tried all he could to forget the loss of his brother and the torture he suffered in the guardhouse. He graduated from college and started a civil engineering business, which ended up being a big success. But nine years ago, he suffered major setbacks. He is currently in the Philippines, working in mining and trying to lay the groundwork for a comeback.

"I often see my brother in my dreams," he said. "When he is smiling in my dreams, something good happens. When he doesn’t say anything, things aren’t good. What that happens, I call my daughter and ask to go to the cemetery to see her dad’s big brother."

Lee’s oldest daughter Sang-hwa is a 22-year-old third-year student atmospheric science at Yonsei University who lives by herself in Seoul. Every May, the sad story of her father and uncle weighs heavily on her mind. It is a story she has heard about since her childhood. "Every time I’m near the house where [former President and coup leader] Chun Doo-hwan lives, I feel so angry thinking how easy [the perpetrators] have it," she said.

"It burns me up to know there are still people who say the Gwangju massacre was made up," she added.

Sang-hwa, who often visited the May 18th Cemetery with her father, wrote down her memories of the time in her diary. "What did my father’s big brother look like?" she wondered in an entry on May 19, 2000. "He’s my dad’s identical twin, so would he be the same now, too? I believed he was smiling up in Heaven."

As a sixth grader in 2003, she received the top prize for elementary school prose at a May 18th Writing Festival organized by the Gwangju chapter of the Korean Teachers’ and Education Workers’ Union.

"Who will comfort the younger brother who lies down at his brother’s grave and sobs even now, twenty-two years after the Gwangju massacre?" she wrote. "The person who tore these brothers apart should devote his entire life to making amends. Yet do they live with any sense of guilt at all? I want to ask him. . . . I plan to learn from the courage they showed throwing themselves into a great historical event. . . . If I ever find myself wavering, I will go to the shrine of democracy in Mangwol and plant a flower of democracy deep in my heart. And I will become the unashamed daughter of both those men."


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