Kwangju 1980 und heute

2013: AHN Sung-Rye: Memories of a Massacre

Kwangju uprising, 18. - 23. Mai 1980

Ahn Sung-rye  -  Memories of a Massacre
By Seth Pevey

Translation by Jeong Jayeon, Photos by Christina Green

May, in our far-flung district, brings the beginnings of balmy weather, mosquitoes buzzing at your ears and windswept, cloudless days. Even so, there is often a stir at this time of something not quite set to rights. The glories of the peninsula in spring, however bright and petal-blown they may be, are now and then stifled by the reflections of the many other springs that have gone before. Though new growths of life blossom from every alleyway, May can bring with it painful recollections of death to the citizens of Gwangju; a crime can be felt to bubble up from below, painfully refusing to be forgotten.

And how could we forget? While those that left their blood on the streets may now be gone and silenced, some relics and artifacts of the May 18th massacre walk amongst us even now – mothers and fathers indeed entire families who experienced the slaughter first-hand are alive, and they remember.

One such living memory can be found yet ablaze inside of Ahn Sung-rye. In her seventies, she has a broad face and a tight smile not entirely resigned and dour enough in its expressions to suit the things she has seen and the many seasons that have passed since.

She greeted the Gwangju News team wearing full hanbok and a hopeful yet worried grin at the old May Mothers’ House (오월어머니 집) in downtown Gwangju. This house, which she first used to establish a sort of sanctuary for the victims and their families, is now much like a shrine to the past: proclaiming and glorifying the human spirit while immortalizing its horrible recompense. Photos and paintings of her late husband, Myung Ro-keun, line the walls like sentinels and are interspersed here and there with hastily captured shots of the surging masses of humanity, seemingly pulsating even in the silent thirty-year-old photographs of the streets outside of the provincial capital building just blocks away from our interview.

She poured us homemade tea in homemade glasses with calmness and a grace that wouldn’t last long. Born in the countryside to a wealthy family in 1938, her family was soon to be robbed of its fortune by the Korean War, a whirlwind of turmoil so catastrophic it would also leave her without a mother or a brother. Her father, left alone with her, wanted only that she marry well – and so she would. She at first thought her best chance at a better life would come from going abroad, and so she sought to study English. What she would find in her new teacher Myung was more than a foreign tongue. Ro-keun, a Fulbright graduate of Ann Arbor and who then worked at Chonnam University, and Sung-rye, his pupil, would soon find their teacher/student relationship dissolving into a romance which would last a lifetime.

“So, because of him, I couldn’t learn English!” she laughed when she recalled how easily love had replaced her other plans.

The handsome bearded visage of her late husband loomed over us still, watchful as she continued. “We were married in 1959, the professor and I.” She looked dreamily up at him across the room.

After their marriage, Ro-keun would take up his post at Chonnam and continued in his strong Christian values, volunteering constantly at the YMCA and YWCA in Gwangju. The couple’s lives near-perfect aside from one thorn – an itching, brewing trouble in the form of Park Chung-hee (in power from 1961-1979, and one of the most controversial figures in Korean History). As a public figure, a professor and a man to whom many people listened, Ro-keun was in a particularly precarious position under the presidency of a paranoid and heavy handed Chung-hee.

“At that time, professors were put to the task of basically spying on their own students, to monitor for any anti-government (or so called “communist”) ideals. My husband wouldn’t do it, and was reported by members of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), and he lost his professorship. Eleven other professors were arrested.”

After this, Ro-keun would return to the church as an elder. He continued to preach the word of Jesus and to proclaim the ideals of aspiring freedom and democracy. Due to a random and unlucky circumstance, he would preach a sermon about “saving the country” – dangerous words at an inopportune time. This testimony, innocent as it was, would soon land him in hot water. In October of 1979, just one month before the sermon, Park Chung-hee had been assassinated. The powers that be would make a quick and unfounded link between Ro-keun’s proclamation and the political struggles of the day; this phantom connection saw him arrested and sent off to military prison for a few months while under suspicion.

Chung-hee’s assassination, which led to the usurpation of power by Chun Doo-hwan, aside from casting Ro-keun as a political prisoner, would be a further jump from the frying pan and into the fire.

“In May, after Doo-hwan came into control, the students tried to go to university classes but found they were forbidden to enter by soldiers. So, they took to the streets.”

Sung-rye directed our attention to one particular photo of a procession of students, a few professors at the head of a long column of marchers.

She modestly points at a man at the front. “That is my husband in the front. Not leading, just escorting.”

After a 14-year-old boy was killed by soldiers while riding his bike from the countryside to vies the protests, Gwangju citizens, Ro-keun and Sung-rye included, knew that the floodgates had burst. There was a broadcast about the killings, and suddenly everyone knew that the government was guilty of murder. Eventually, students and supporters would raid a local arms cache and take again to the streets. The government response was to make Gwangju an island; they cut off telephones, food, transportation and even medicine.

“My husband was asked to be a sort of negotiator of Citizens’ Settlement Committee between the citizens, students and the government,” Sung-rye recalls. “The students demanded the release of citizens, treatment for the injured and a formal apology.”

But Chun Doo-hwan would overturn any agreements they managed to come to, and with the “agreement” of American leadership, sent the force of the army bearing down on Gwangju.

“At that time we were so thankful to America, but they did nothing to stop Doo-hwan. We felt so betrayed,” she said as huge marble tears rolled down her face and channeled into wrinkled lines of disgust. “So many people died.”

She has a right to shed tears. At the time, she was a nurse in Gwangju Christian Hospital, and saw with her own eyes the horrible and bloody birth pangs of democracy. Her hospital did all it could, performing up to thirty surgeries a day as injuries and casualties mounted. She shows us pictures of bodies piled on bodies: their limbs flaccid and their faces unrecognizable smeared with black blood, torsos with angry swollen bullet holes lining the floor, dead women, dead children and some bits of flesh hardly identifiable as once having been human.

She and her husband would survive to tell us about this, as well as her daughter who joined us for the interview, herself having spent two years in prison over the incident. Ro-keun would go on to live a happy life, passing away in 2000 from a heart attack.

“I love my husband.” Sung-rye says in English, holding a photo of him in her lap and smiling over tears.

Such is the living history of Gwangju. Democracy, once the philosophical fodder of intellectuals, suddenly became real in the minds of the people in that distant spring. Though Doo-hwan would rule for seven more years, he would eventually be sentenced to death, and then pardoned for his role in the massacre.

Sung-rye bows goodbye to the Gwangju News team with a smile.

As the new spring comes into flower across Korea, we can’t help but be reminded that the freedom and privilege it enjoys once cost our own city so dearly. May 18th is only a special day on Gwangju, and not marked by any significance in the other Korean cities. Therefore let us somberly pay it homage, and hope for the springs hereafter to be filled with better days.