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Book records testimonies of bereaved families, survivors of Itaewon tragedy

Oct. 25, 2023 - 17:23 By Hwang Dong-hee
Lee Jeong-min, (left) who lost his daughter in Itaewon, and Kim Hye-in, who lost her brother, hold a moment of silence before a press conference in Jung-gu, Seoul, on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

On the night of Oct. 29, 2022, 159 young lives were lost in a packed alley in Itaewon, Seoul.

The book "We Are in Itaewon Now," (a literal translation of the Korean title) (Changbi Publishers), released ahead of the first anniversary of the tragedy, is the first published collection of interviews of the survivors and the bereaved families.

"I trust ordinary people. If they are given the right information and the facts, even those who cursed and criticized (the victims) will change their views ..." said one survivor in the book.

"We Are in Itaewon Now" (Changbi Publishers)

The book weaves together a comprehensive narrative, compiling interviews with 14 individuals. They include survivors, family members and friends of the victims, Itaewon residents and workers. The collective effort constructs a multifaceted view of the incident.

A group of 13 people from around the country, including a lawyer, activist, artist, mother, and an ordinary young man, formed a team called the Record Committee to compile testimonies that vividly capture the anguish and pain of the victims' families. Through in-depth interviews over the course of nine months, the committee's book shed light on the tragedy's aftermath.

From left: Lee Jeong-min, Kim Hye-in, Yu Hae-jung and Lee Hyun-kyeong attend a press conference in Jung-gu, Seoul, Wednesday. (Yonhap)

The press conference held Wednesday in Jung-gu, Seoul, to mark the book's release was attended by two victim families and two members of the committee. They expressed hope that the book would contribute to creating a safer society.

The press conference began with a moment of silence.

“I hope the book allows us to remember why they couldn’t return, not why they went there,” said Kim Hye-in, sister of the late Kim Eui-hyun, one of the victims of the Itaewon crowd crush.

"As family members (of the victims), we believe that forgotten tragedies have the potential to happen again. We must remember why the crowd control measures were not implemented for the annual festival, why the initial emergency calls went unanswered, why the follow-up measures lacked transparency, and why no one has taken responsibility for the tragedy."

Lee Jeong-min, who lost his daughter in the incident, and who now leads the Itaewon Disaster Bereaved Families group, also expressed hope that people would understand how a sudden tragedy changes ordinary lives.

"This book contains everyday stories of families before the tragedy, who they were, accounts of the day, and the stories of those struggling to take steps forward after the tragedy,” Lee said.

Lee has encountered numerous insensitive victim-blaming remarks, such as "Why did they go there in the first place?"

"This statement, I believe, initially came from a politician," said Lee. "Itaewon is still a place where many young people should be able to enjoy. It's the responsibility of the older generation to rekindle the youthful spirit of the place once again."

"As you read the stories, I hope people will remember (it) once again. Because if this collective memory grows, similar tragedies can be prevented and there will be no more bereaved families suffering as we do.”

A street in Itaewon, Seoul, on Monday, a week before the first anniversary of the Itaewon crowd crush (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Yu Hae-jung, one of the writers, said, "The ways and speed at which people experience sadness and pain differ, and the textures of these experiences vary. … The bereaved families and survivors would read the book together and feel solidarity.”

She hopes the book becomes a chance to share and ease grief, she added.

"I hope that, through the process of seeking 'shared sorrow' and 'people with whom we can share,' readers can also find solace, feel solidarity and heal wounds."

A portion of the book's proceeds will be donated to remembering the victims of the Itaewon tragedy and supporting public activities.