[FOUNTAIN]Waiting game sometimes can save lives

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[FOUNTAIN]Waiting game sometimes can save lives

In 1993 in Waco, Texas, U.S. government officers laid siege to a compound, harboring men, women and children who were members of a Christian cult called the Branch Davidians. In the United States, there are hundreds of fringe religious groups, but there is also the guarantee of religious freedom. The federal officers surrounded the Davidians, not because their beliefs were dangerous, but because they possessed a large stockpile of illegal weapons.
Led by David Koresh, the group had refused to give up the guns. The government’s patience ran out after 51 days. On April 19, the authorities launched an assault on the compound in which 80 people died, including many children and several federal officers.
Korea is generally known as a safe place for individuals, in part because it is against the law for citizens to possess firearms.
And so it was in Sangdo-dong, in southern Seoul, that an unusual confrontation had been taking place for months between 40 policemen and a group of 20 squatters, who had barricaded themselves in a half-demolished apartment block.
What made the situation tense was a threat inherent in the large hand-painted sign posted outside the squatters' compound. It read: "Do Not Enter. You Could Be Shot With a Handmade Gun."
The battered block the squatters inhabited was a post-Armageddon fortress, something out of Mad Max. A ragged flag flew defiantly from a sheet-metal rampart that the squatters used to throw fire bombs at the authorities.
Meanwhile, a construction company was trying to clear the land to build apartment towers. The squatters, who were poor day laborers for the most part, wanted new homes and were prepared for violence in pressing their demand.
Inside a gray trailer at the construction site just before the Lunar New Year, a plainclothes police commander sat in a vinyl easy chair, idly paging through a newspaper. Scattered on the floor was riot gear ― helmets and batons.
"There are little kids with them and some old people," the officer said of the squatters. "It's too dangerous to attack."
But it did not mean the authorities were doing nothing. Water and electricity had been cut off, although members of a support group were allowed to take food and cooking gas to the squatters. "We see it as a human right," said the commander.
Time and the brutally cold weather were on the side of the police. The siege in Seoul lasted 18 months. During the holiday the leader of the squatters and seven others turned themselves in to police. The conflict ended peacefully with assurances from the local officials that they would try to find new housing for the poor people.


by Charles D. Sherman

The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Daily.

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