Tears of blood

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 April, 2008, 12:00am

In Korea they call them halmoni (grandmothers), although many are so scarred mentally and physically that they have never married or had children. In Japan, they are known as 'comfort women', a hated euphemism for their forced role of providing 'comfort' to marauding troops in military brothels. But around the world, another, altogether starker term will follow them to their graves: sex slaves.

Kang il-chul is one of a handful of the surviving women living out their final days in Sharing House, a museum and communal refuge two hours from the South Korean capital, Seoul. It is an austere, concrete building off a country road in a sparsely populated area of rice fields and scraggly mountain forests. But she has found some peace in Gyeonggi Province.

Aged 15, and the baby in a family of 12, Ms Kang said she was snatched from an area nearby in 1943 and sent north on a train to a Japanese army base in Manchuria. On her second night she was raped. Soldiers lined up night after night to abuse her. She has scars just below her neck from cigarette burns and says she suffers headaches from a beating she took at the hands of an officer.

'I still have blood tears in my soul when I think about what happened,' she said, using a Korean phrase to express her memories. Like many of the women, she finds it traumatic to recall the past, crying and knotting a handkerchief, and swaying from side to side as she talks. But she turns angry and slaps the table in front of her when ex-Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe is mentioned. 'That horrible man,' she said. 'He wants us to die.'

Last year, Mr Abe stunned the residents of Sharing House by claiming there was 'no evidence' to prove the women were coerced 'in the strict sense of the term', reversing Japan's long-term official position. Amid a growing political storm and pressure from Japan's allies in Washington, Mr Abe subsequently backtracked in a series of carefully worded statements that took the heat out of the controversy. But the denial terrified Ms Kang. 'I felt that my heart had been turned inside out,' she said.

The director of Sharing House, Ahn Sin-kweon, said the women's greatest fear was that the crimes against them would be forgotten when they died. 'After they pass away it will be difficult to keep their memory alive because they won't be here to describe it themselves,' he said.

Thousands of Asian women like Ms Kang - some as young as 12 - were enslaved and repeatedly raped, tortured and brutalised for years by the Japanese military, according to Amnesty International. Sexual abuse, beatings and sometimes forced abortions left many unable to bear children. Some were raped 30 times a day. Most survivors stayed silent until a small group of Korean victims began to speak out in the early 1990s.

Among the first was Kim Hak-soon, raped and treated, in her words 'like a public toilet' by the soldiers. 'We must record these things that were forced upon us,' she said before she died.

The call was taken up by about 50 women, said Mr Ahn. Many weren't married or were living alone, barely able to scrape a living. A Buddhist organisation helped build Sharing House on donated land in the 1990s and some survivors began coming, first out of curiosity.

'They were initially reluctant to stay because the more they were out in the spotlight, the more people knew that they were raped,' said Mr Ahn. 'It is very difficult for women of that generation to discuss sexual matters openly, let alone these experiences.'

Japan officially acknowledged wartime military slavery in a landmark 1993 statement by government spokesman Yohei Kono, an admission followed by the offer of compensation from a small private fund, which expired last year. But the so-called Kono statement has long baited Japanese revisionists, who deny that the military was directly involved. 'The women were legal prostitutes in brothels, earning money for their families,' said revisionist academic Nobukatsu Fujioka. 'Mr Kono's statement was a mistake and should be reversed.'

Although Mr Abe has been replaced by the less hawkish Yasuo Fukuda, Ms Kang and her fellow victims fear it will be only a matter of time before the denials return to haunt them, perhaps with the next Japanese leader. The struggle defines the final years of their lives. If they win, they will have salvaged some of the dignity snatched from them as teenagers. If they lose, they will in effect be branded prostitutes. 'We must fight or we will be forgotten,' Ms Kang said.

When her health allows, the 82-year-old drags herself from the quiet seclusion of the Gyeonggi countryside to a weekly demonstration outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The former sex slaves have been protesting there since the early 1990s and held their 800th demonstration in February. Their demands, including punishment for the former soldiers who raped them, an apology from the emperor and the building of a memorial in Japan are angrily hurled against the walls of the embassy but are unlikely to ever be won. The Wednesday protest, as it is known, has become ritualised, tinged with sadness as the already small group of survivors is decimated by illness and mortality. Of 15 former residents of Sharing House, just seven remain. Most are in poor health.

But the women are heartened by small victories. Last year, the US Congress passed Resolution 121, calling on Tokyo to 'formally apologise and accept historical responsibility' for the comfort women issue. Mrs Kang was one of the women who travelled to Washington in 2005 to testify.

The resolution, sponsored by Japanese-American politician Mike Honda, was fought hard by Tokyo, which sent lobbyists and Diet lawmakers to squash it. An editorial in Japan's largest newspaper, The Yomiuri, said that there was not 'one shred of evidence to substantiate' the claim that the Japanese government had systemically coerced and recruited the women. Many believe that but for Mr Abe's bungled denial, the resolution would not have passed.

Today, a large banner showing a beaming Mr Honda is draped across the main courtyard of the commune. A copy of Resolution 121, signed by Mr Honda and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, hangs in Mr Ahn's office. 'The resolution was very important for us because our priority is to keep the memory of the women alive, to keep a record of their lives,' he said, recalling Mr Honda's reception when he visited the refuge last November. 'He was treated like a hero. Honda called the women sisters and said it was a measure of their value that they'd come through all this suffering and emerged out the other side. He described Sharing House as a living museum.'

Surprisingly, perhaps, Mr Ahn reserves much of his anger for his own government. '[South] Korea should more actively support us. We are upset that it doesn't stand up against the Japanese government.'

Like many, he believes Seoul bartered away any compensation claims when it signed a friendship treaty with Japan in 1965, in return for millions of dollars in soft loans and grants. 'It is up to Japanese people to criticise their own government.'

He said that every year about 5,000 Japanese made the pilgrimage to his office. Their encounter with the former sex slaves was sometimes wrenching and tearful. Some stayed as volunteers to help look after the centre.

But Ms Kang is deeply suspicious of Japanese journalists. 'They want to show us weak and dying,' she said crying, again slapping the table in anger. 'Especially the camera crews. They follow the oldest, sickest women around and film them, hoping to show everyone back home that we will all be gone soon.'

Later, she stopped me taking photographs of a frail woman blankly watching TV in the sitting room of Sharing House. 'You must show us strong,' she demanded, as we walked outside to take photos of her posing, like a boxer, beside a monument to the sex slaves in the main courtyard.

She recalls the day she was taken. 'The soldiers had a list with my name on it. They put me in a truck. My nephew came out to look at them. He was just a baby. The soldiers kicked him and he died.' She said memories like that made her strong. 'Future generations will call us prostitutes. Either they [the Japanese government] save their faces, or we save ours.'