[FOUNTAIN]Remember the lepers“The leper is ashamed/ of the light of the sun and sky/ When the moon rises over the barley field/ he devoured a baby/ and shed tears as red as flowers all through the night.” “Leper,” published by poet Seo Jeong-ju in 1936, contains the sorrow and pains of those suffering from leprosy and the social prejudice against them.
Sorok Island in Goheung County, South Jeolla Province is a symbol of the sufferings of the leprous patients. The island was named “sorok” because it resembles a fawn. In 1916, the Japanese Government General of Joseon founded Jahye Hospital in Sorok Island and quarantined 99 lepers in the name of isolating their disease. At the time, people shunned and discriminated against people with leprosy, calling it “divine punishment.” The patients were exploited and subjected to forced labor at a brick factory. They were also sterilized and used for various biological experiments. By the last days of the Japanese colonial era, the Japanese hospital director had treated more than 6,000 patients like slaves, and had them pay respect to his own statue.
After independence, in the 1950s and 60s the island was divided into the employees’ quarters and hospital quarters by a 2-kilometer barbed wired fence. When a child was born to a patient, the baby was quarantined in the employees’ quarters. Once a month, the parents could see their children from the other side of the fence. Concerned of possible airborne contagion, the children would stand upwind from their parents. After a brief encounter, the families were separated again. The patients called the meeting place sutanjang or “the point of grief.”
Today, Sorok Island has emerged as a tourist attraction, and leprosy has become an illness that can be prevented with a simple prescription. Currently, some 700 sufferers of leprosy are under the care of Sorok National Hospital. The average age of the patients is 73, and most of them lived through Japanese colonial rule.
Recently, the Tokyo District Court turned down the compensation lawsuit filed by 117 leprosy patients on Sorok Island. Their intention must not have been just getting monetary compensation from Japan. They must have hoped to remind the society and refresh our memories about the discrimination and unjust treatment they had to endure.
Poet Han Ha-un, who had suffered from the painful disease until his last day, wrote about his pain in the poem, “Blue Bird.” “When I die, I will become a blue bird/ flying around the blue sky, over the blue fields/ singing blue songs and crying blue tears.”
by Ko Dae-hoon
The writer is a deputy city news editor for the JoongAng Ilbo.