Wednesday, September 22, 2010

So Close and Yet so Far-- My Birthplace

Two reporters from the Hankyoreh  newspaper visited our mission station a few days ago to talk to some of the Catholics who are refugees from  North Korea. Today is the Harvest Moon Festival, the most popular holiday of the Korean Calendar, and a time for families to come together to celebrate and, like the three men interviewed by the reporters, to remember their homes in the North and those they left behind.

Matthias, one of the three men interviewed and now a white-haired member of the community, left the North when he was 25 to avoid the fighting. He took a boat from Yeonbaek County in the North to Gyodong, which is only 3.5 km away. He left his father, his wife and three year old daughter, planning to meet them again when the fighting was over. That day never came.

He spent the next 10 years traveling around  Korea  working as a laborer and as a civilian in the army. In 1960 he returned to Gyodong to work as a farmhand. On one occasion, he went to Chiseok village here in Gyodong where he could see the middle school for girls and his house beneath the pagoda tree. It was there that the unbelievable happened.
He saw his wife that he had left behind 10 years earlier; she was standing there also nostalgically looking toward the home they had left. He rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn't dreaming. His wife, shortly after he left, also made the trip to Gyodong hoping to meet him. She told him that their daughter, who she carried on her back during the long trip, died from lack of food. She also lives with the regret that she did not bring her father-in-law. This was the beginning of a  new life for the homesick Matthias and his wife.

Matthias took the money he earned as a farmhand and bought land in the mud flats, turning it into productive farmland. At the age of 38, he could now prepare a table for the rites of the dead with the rice from his own land, a small fish and a pear; it was his first harvest as a landowner and the first ritual of remembrance for his dead family members.
That day of the interview, the three parishioners interviewed stayed around after the reporters left to reminisce on their own. This time of the year brings sadness to the lives of many. Many have died or moved to the mainland, and those left from Yeongback number only about 20. The Hankyoreh interview ends with a poem written by a member of the community in memory of her husband.

Separated only by the river some 1000 leagues away
A home I can see but can't go to.
Where the Han meets the Imjin and Yeseong
And flows into the sea.
We are the lord of creation, they say,
But I cannot do, alas, what even birds can do.

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