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Island in ruins after shelling

With homes destroyed and forests burned, hundreds of residents flee

Nov 25,2010
Residents of Yeonpyeong Island moved to Incheon yesterday. About 340 people evacuated the island followed by about 400 who fled between Tuesday night and early morning yesterday. [NEWSIS]

YEONPYEONG - It took only 30 minutes, but Yeonpyeong Island became a wasteland Tuesday afternoon after being bombarded by North Korea’s artillery attacks.

The North’s surprise artillery attack was powerful enough to burn 70 percent of the island’s forests and destroy dozens of homes. The power plant and transformers were also badly damaged, knocking out electricity on the island. Islanders who managed to evacuate to 19 shelters around the island had no other option than to shake in horror in darkness as night time arrived. And then, the traumatized islanders fell into another level of terror when cell phones didn’t work and residents couldn’t determine the whereabouts of family members separated in the dark. Plus, they had to endure the cold.

In one spot, the windows of a three-story building were shattered and a car in a parking lot was blown 10 meters away, crushed like a scrap of paper. Buildings’ steel girders were bent like gluten candy after artillery rounds landed on the buildings. The smell of spent artillery rounds remained in the alleyways of houses while Korea Coast Guard members and firefighters checked houses and buildings, looking for casualties.

The Coast Guard said about 370 residents were moved to the mainland last night by 19 fishing boats, and other islanders followed suit yesterday, leaving behind their damaged town. According to government statistics, 1,756 residents live on Yeonpyeong Island.

“My house is gone,” said one islander upon his arrival at the Incheon port at 1:20 p.m. yesterday. “I brought nothing with me because there’s nothing left in my house.”

Islanders said they thought a full-blown war had broken out when they heard artillery rounds exploding relentlessly on the island. Dozens of islanders managed to make it to the mainland, by way of a South Korean patrol ship that ferried residents back and forth, many dressed in slippers and gym suits, indicating they had been caught off-guard.

Parents held tightly the hands of their little children, so as not to lose them in the chaos. “I couldn’t just leave alone because my wife and two kids were at our house,” said Kim Ji-chun, a 41-year-old fisherman. Kim said he saw his village burst into flames in the distance while he was at work at a dock.

Kim, a native of the island, said he patiently waited until the attacks ended and then ran to the village to see if his family was all right. Kim’s house, fortunately, wasn’t hit by artillery rounds. “It was yesterday evening that I managed to meet my family who evacuated to a shelter,” Kim said. “I never want to go back.”

Park Eun-bin, a first-year high school student, said he and his classmates were taking a pre-test of the College Scholastic Ability Test and that was when he heard the screeching of the artillery attack.

“My teacher told us to evacuate underground shelter and my classmates and I ran there,” Park, 16, recalled.

“I was so worried I couldn’t meet my parents when we were taken to a shelter, but I’m very relieved because they’re alright.”

Some 60 high school students and teachers who managed to escape to the school’s dusty underground shelter had to shake in the cold because there was no heat available.

Park Hoon-sik, a guesthouse owner on the island, said the attacks were so sudden that he couldn’t even look after his neighbors.

“Everyone all had a hard time taking care of their own neighbors,” Park said. “I was in a rush evacuating the scene and I forgot to take my wallet. If someone tells me to go back to my town, I don’t want to.”

Park Myeong-gyun, 44, suffered a ruptured eardrum after enduring the earsplitting sound of the artillery attack.

Park’s neighbor fell to the ground and put his knee out of joint during the attack. Nine people who sustained injury by the attack, including Park, were carried to a nearby hospital upon arrival to Incheon port.

Choi Yeong-gwang, chairman of Ongjin County Council, who went to see the ruins on Yeonpyeong Island yesterday morning, said, “things were much more devastating than what I thought.

“I looked around the island and one area badly hit by artillery rounds had four or five houses destroyed; it was hard to recognize that they were houses,” Choi said.

“It was like a war scene you can see in the movies and on TV dramas. I still remember the deep sighs of islanders who were agonizing over how to restore the village,” he said.

Police estimate that at least half of the islanders will move to mainland. Many islanders said they were packing and ready to leave their village because they were worried that the North would attack again.

The dock at Yeonpyeong was crowded with islanders who were anxiously awaiting their turn to leave the island. Meanwhile, the Incheon Coast Guard sent two Navy patrol ships that carried ramen noodles, beverages and first-aid kits yesterday for the second time after it sent two ships with these supplies on Tuesday.

Over 350 firemen and officers of the Incheon Coast Guard were dispatched to the island to restore facilities and help out islanders.

The National Emergency Management Agency began building temporary houses that will be available to accommodate 760 islanders.

To accommodate the 120 Yeonpyeong elementary, middle and high school students, the Incheon Office of Education will offer classes in four Incheon schools starting today. The education office plans to offer school supplies, textbooks, school meals and transportation.


By Yu Kil-yong, Kim Mi-ju [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]



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