What do we do with tragedies of history? At the Jeju Sa Sam Peace Park on April 3 I saw an impressive ceremony to lift the pain of the past and clear the way for a fresh, strong future.
I moved to Jeju Island with my Korean-born husband two years ago, and only on the day of this ceremony did I understand why Jeju is called “Island of Peace.”
About 7,000 people attended this ceremony to honor and release the spirits of 30,000 people killed during the tragic years of the Sa Sam Massacre.
Only since the 1980s has the truth about this period trickled to light. Not only did 10 percent of the total population of Jeju die, often in tortuous and brutal ways - including children and elderly - but they were unjustly dishonored until recently, and so were their descendants.
One part of the ceremony was the unveiling of grand memorial stones, engraved with the names and date of birth and death of 13,000 people. Listed by village, I found the village of Wasan-ri, where I live. It had 90 names listed. Even today there can’t be more than 200 people living in this tiny village. What a high percentage 90 people was at that time! Tears filled my eyes with empathy as people gathered by their villages, and some elderly told dramatic stories of their escape.
Other parts of the ceremony evoked tender currents, honoring and bringing to rest this painful past: A shaman chanted and performed ritual movement. A procession of people carried bamboo poles with paper skeletons dangling. A poem, recently written by a Korean student, poignantly described the pain families endured. Children sang.
Short speeches by the Jeju governor, head of the Sa Sam groups, and delegate of the Korean government included a very genuine commitment to learn from this. Officials placed incense on an altar to honor these souls. Stadium-size screens played a video of the apology the Korean government offered Jeju in 2005. To address the pain of this injustice, the government officially named Jeju - once an island of pain - the “Island of Peace.”
Immediately after the ceremony I visited the Sa Sam museum and learned the significant part the American military played in this atrocity. All this happened before I was born, but as one of the few Americans at this ceremony, I feel such sorrow over this tragedy and wish to express my deep apology to the Jeju people.
The museum documents well the whole period, and also includes an area called “A Place for Releasing Resentment,” a simple circular garden where people can sit or walk. I was touched by the wisdom of this, because it acknowledges that when people see all this pain and injustice, they need to do some forgiving. Another wise move: just before leaving the museum, visitors are invited to write comments and voice their agreement that this must not happen again. Thousands of notes were hung on the wall! Many said, “I feel so sad this happened” and “I hope this never happens again.”
Although standing up back then for their values likely seemed unsuccessful to most, their efforts held something that one can feel in Jeju people even today: their dignity and self-respect. I’ve come to know Jeju people as hardy, resilient and industrious. They are proud too, as the many signs declare: “Jeju Special Self-Governing Province—New Challenges for a New Generation.” And they are welcoming, as posted in several languages on major roads, “We love having you here!”
Sa Sam is one of the most significant events in Jeju’s history. I honor the Jeju people and those in the Jeju and Korean government who are healing the past and laying a foundation for a strong and creative future.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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