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A decade on, survivors, bereaved siblings share untold stories of Sewol ferry disaster

March 13, 2024 - 16:51 By Hwang Dong-hee
Bereaved families of the Sewol ferry disaster and writers attend a press conference in Jung-gu, Seoul, Monday. (Yonhap)

It has been almost a decade, but for the families of the victims, the Sewol ferry disaster is still ongoing.

On April 16, 2014, the sinking of the Sewol ferry took the lives of 304, many of them high school students on a field trip to Jeju Island. The failure to rescue hundreds of people trapped in the slowly sinking ship, the live television broadcasts and the frantic chaos that ensued have left an indelible scar on the nation.

Reflecting on the past decade, two official records -- “520 Fridays” and “Facing Spring, Walking Ten Years” -- have been published ahead of the 10th anniversary of the ferry disaster, by the Sewol Families for Truth and A Safer Society.

The two books include interviews with 117 people, including 62 family members and 55 citizens who experienced the disaster firsthand. Six writers helped to compile, organize and write the books.

“520 Fridays”(left) and "Facing Spring, Walking Ten Years” (Onda Press)

"Facing Spring, Walking Ten Years” stands as a testament to the enduring impact of the ferry disaster, particularly on the young survivors and the victims' siblings who, now in their late 20s or 30s, still grapple with its aftermath.

With the bereaved family often narrowly defined as parents, the voices of victims' siblings voices have often been ignored. The book delves into these “young” victims’ experiences, capturing their trauma, sadness and their path to healing.

The writers recalled how challenging it was to find survivors and bereaved siblings who were willing to come forward and give their accounts. Many were affected by the prejudice that categorized them as not being "true victims." The survivors were told, “But you’re still alive,” while the siblings were told, “But you’re not the parents who have lost children.”

Bereaved families of the Sewol ferry disaster and writers attend a press conference in Jung-gu, Seoul, Monday. (Yonhap)

At a press conference held in Seoul on Monday to mark the publication of the book, Kim Ju-hee, a survivor of the 2014 disaster, reflected on the lack of agency she felt.

“No one asked for our opinions when making decisions, because they assumed we would be struggling. I couldn't go to my friends’ funerals or go back to school. And we weren't the ones making those decisions,” she said.

“I realized that if the victims themselves don’t speak up, nobody would know. That’s why I decided to participate in this project."

The book also sheds light on the plight of students who were not labeled as “victims” because they did not go on the school trip, challenging the conventional notion of "victimhood.”

"Society didn’t ask the siblings (of the Sewol victims). We weren't respected. We always had to step back. Our parents were also worried about us taking a stand. But why should we stay silent? … We also have a lot to say as victims of the disaster," said Park Bo-na, who lost her younger brother, Seong-ho.

Nam Seo-hyun, who lost her younger sister, Ji-hyun, said, "It was difficult to find a balance between my identity as a sister in the disaster and myself. And it brought immense feelings of guilt.”

"(But) now, I think our parents have been drawing the trajectory leading up to the disaster through the process of uncovering the truth, and we are drawing the trajectory of life after the disaster," she added.

Throughout the conference, the bereaved families emphasized their hope that the past 10 years may serve as a benchmark for other disaster victims.

"While the book is labeled an 'official record,' this was our life,” said Kim Jong-gi, who lost his daughter, Soo-jin, in reference to “520 Fridays.”

The book also openly discusses the conflicts among the bereaved families, such as differing perspectives on compensation.

"We couldn't falsify the life we've lived. We fought for the past 10 years. I hope our lives are shown exactly as they are without exaggeration or embellishment," said one family member.