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[Lee Kyong-hee] Muffled voices haunt the ‘Alley of Wailing’

Nov. 24, 2022 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

Kim Ji-hyeon and Kim Hyeon-su were probably headed for marriage – but they decided to celebrate Halloween in Itaewon. An envelope for a cash wedding gift beside a drying stalk of white chrysanthemum implies the couple’s unfulfilled dreams. Post-it notes surround the tragic mementos, conveying the wishes of their family members.

“Live happily in heaven. From Your Daddy, Mommy and Little Brother.” “Dear Hyeon-su, please take good care of Ji-hyeon. My beloved daughter, I will always remember you.” “I regret a lot that I wasn’t kinder to you. Go to a nice place. Goodbye, sister.”

With the police cordon lifted, the alley that became a crushing death trap for nearly 160 young lives beckoned an endless stream of mourners last Sunday. Under the late autumn sun, a deep silence pervaded the sloping narrow byway as visitors laid flowers, offered prayers, or quietly gazed at a wall covered with sympathy notes and gifts. In a few photos, mostly of foreigners, young adults smiled brightly. In a few words beneath an image of a Halloween pumpkin, the nameless site got a name: “Alley of Wailing.”

I heard silent wailing all around. A pair of small notes pasted side by side caught my eye. One said, “Dear Mi-gyeong, I pray for your reincarnation in paradise. Grandpa.” The other said, “Dear Min-gyeong, I pray for your reincarnation in paradise. Grandpa.” It’s hard to imagine how a man should feel after losing two young granddaughters in the deadly crowd crush on a road in the heart of the capital.

A young woman who was standing next to me quietly approached the wall, posted a note, and paused. The note read, “Rauf Naziralev / Incheon National University / Uzbekistan.” A long silence followed, perhaps to remember shared classes and campus life.

To the general public, the victims remain anonymous. We need to see the Alley of Wailing to know names. But as the wall suggests, contrary to loud disputes between rival political camps, not all of the bereaved families oppose disclosing the names of their loved ones. Instead, they might find some comfort in talking about their loved ones who died prematurely and exchanging their feelings and thoughts with one another.

So far, there has been little effort by authorities to help the bereaved families get together. Rather, some families are heard complaining that authorities won’t put them in touch.

Considering the echoes easily found between the Halloween crowd crush in Itaewon and the Sewol ferry sinking in coastal waters in 2014, both deemed as avoidable disasters that claimed hundreds of young lives, it isn’t difficult to guess why authorities are reluctant to bring the bereaved families together. Declaring a weeklong period of national mourning on the day after the disaster, the government asked the nation to focus on “grieving, not inquiring.”

Now, almost four weeks since the horrific catastrophe, which also injured 196 young Halloween revelers, 31 of them seriously, nobody has taken responsibility. There have been no high-profile resignations. Verbal blunders by irresponsible high-ranking officials, including Prime Minister Han Duck-soo and Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min, have incited public fury.

It is increasingly evident that the disaster could have been prevented. Authorities were aware that Itaewon, a popular nightlife district, has a huge throng on Halloween. Yet, they were ill-prepared. Moreover, they failed to respond quickly to emergency calls that began pouring in hours before the fatal crush occurred. But the police’s special investigation is conspicuously focused on the wrong targets – police officers and firefighters in the field. There are no signs that the investigation will move up the chain of command before its scheduled completion this weekend.

President Yoon Suk-yeol seems oblivious to political and moral responsibility beyond legal accountability. There is no overt reaction to warnings that the disaster in Itaewon can be a lethal challenge for his already deeply troubled administration. Instead, there are increasing indications that he will bury his head in the sand like Park Geun-hye, the disgraced president. Park’s inept response to the Sewol sinking triggered her downfall.

Rather than scolding the police officers in the field, Yoon should have asked himself what he did that night and why he failed to direct the concerned agencies and officials to cope more effectively to save as many lives as possible. He also cannot evade the widespread question if his abrupt, highly criticized relocation of the presidential office has overburdened the district police. The new presidential office is a short distance to the ill-fated alley.

“Just a few more police officers on the scene could have stopped the tragedy,” said Nam In-seok, who runs a clothing store along the alley. “They could have redirected the crowd at either end of the alley. That would have been enough, I believe.”

Nam witnessed the disaster unfold. He helped victims through the night, and as dawn broke, he began preparing a ritual table. He offered rice and soup along with some fruits for the dead on their final journeys. “I just couldn’t let the kids go in such a way,” he said.

Nam is still haunted by what he saw. But he keeps his store open while most of the neighboring shops and bars remain closed. “I just can’t leave. So, I live here, watching people mourn outside,” he said.

After four decades of running business in the neighborhood, Nam hopes the alley for wailing will be turned into a memorial park – after all the facts are brought to light. He believes it will be a way for the innocent young souls to be properly remembered with their names and for Itaewon to be resurrected.

Lee Kyong-hee

Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.