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Sewol Ferry Tragedy: The Fight for the Truth - We want to know why our children had to die.

August 29, 2014
located:Korea, South
by:Ok-Hee Jeong
Every death of a beloved relative is painful. More painful if the death is unexpected. More incredibly painful if it is the death of one’s own child. But the death is painful to the verge of lunacy if you know the death of this child could have been prevented.

This is exactly the grief which the relatives of about 300 children have been carrying in their hearts for four months now. The 16 and 17 year-old children from Danwon-High School in Ansan, a city near to Seoul, were on a class trip to Jaeju island in a ferry named Sewol when it sank by the southwestern coast in South Korea on the 16th of April this year.

In the subsequent days the pictures of the toppled ferry ran through the South Korean press, then all over the world, and finally the picture of the top of the bow which just protruded from the water spread throughout the media and all the time the media reported about the large-scale rescue effort by the government.

“At the beginning I didn’t worry about it at all. The media reported that all the passengers had been saved. I drove directly to Jindo island and was fully convinced that my daughter was out of danger. But as I arrived there, I could find her nowhere”, tells Han Jae-Chang, father of one of the victims. Then after hours of waiting on Jindo island, the parents became aware that their children sank with the ferry into the deep, cold sea. The rescue of the all the passengers turned out to be a cruel hoax.

Only the passengers who brought themselves to the relative safe upper-deck could be saved by the boats and helicopters. The first to be rescued by the coast guards were the captain and the crew. And throughout their escape from the ferry they let the ship announcement “Stay put in your cabins” stay on repeat. They abandoned the passengers, the majority of them children, who stayed in the ship in accordance with the announcement.

The parents feared for their children, they hoped for the so-called Golden Time, hoped for the chance of survival due to the air pocket in the sunken ship, they hoped that the large-scale rescue effort with “hundreds of divers, countless boats and helicopters” which was reported endlessly in the media could rescue their children. They chartered a ship in order to be at the scene of the accident near their children, but if they arrived there they had to face in disbelief that contrary to the government information and the news, the coast guards did nothing.

“That night heaven was well-lit by the flares and from the coast it looked if the rescue people were very busy. But all this was a lie. They did nothing. No action. NOTHING! The news information was just like propaganda“, tells Han Jae-Chang, still aghast.

„We asked the rescue people ‘Do you have equipment to bring the children from the water and make sure they get oxygen?’, but they said no. What did it mean? It meant that they are only prepared for the eventuality of salvaging their corpses”, claims the mother of Jae-Ug, also one of the victims.

The irresponsible behavior of the captain and the crew, an excessive load on the ship allowed to occur by bribing the authorities, insufficient rescue training for the crew, unprofessionalism of the coast guards and failed crisis management by the government are said by people to be the reasons the accident came to pass and why the children couldn’t be rescued although there was enough rescue time before the ship sank. 

No Time for Sorrow

With the death of their children, the lives of their parents have been completely changed since the horrific event. For four months now they have been fighting to discover the truth about the cause of the accident and how it could be that the rescue effort completely failed and why their children had to die.

”We have waited for the government to give us the answers, but then we had to realize that the government did nothing and it will do nothing if we carry on simply waiting for the truth”, states Jae Ug's mother.

In their desperation they have initiated a petition. They want to collect ten million signatures to force president Park Geun-Hye, her government and the parliament to enact a special law which will enable an independent and transparent investigation for a complete clarification of the incident. Alongside many people in South Korea who support this petition, there are also people who bring the cruel accusation that the parents want to make money off their dead children using this special law.

Kim Young-Oh, also a father of a victim, emaciated to little more than skin and bones. He has been on hunger strike in support of the special law for 46 days. But the fight of children’s parents is also equally a fight for a better future for South Korean society. They say, such a catastrophe shall not happen again and no parents shall lose their children like them due to bribery, irresponsibility and greed. And if such things do happen again, an independent investigation shall clarify how it could have occurred, who is responsible, and ensure that those responsible shall be punished.

“We could do nothing. Our children died before our very eyes. The least we can do for them is to discover the truth and tell them why they had to die”, a young mother of a victim being overcome by grief silently cries.

But it is exactly this answer that the state South Korea still owes these relatives of the Sewol ferry tragedy victims – happy teenagers who laughed and were light-hearted during the fireworks on the ferry and looked forward to the class trip without knowing that this would be the last night of their tragically short lives.

Article written by:
Ok-Hee Jeong
Korea, South