The Saewol tragedy : still a scar in the heart of parents

During my visit in Korea, in December 2017, one of the most moving moments was when I came across a protest / shrine about the victims of the Saewol tragedy. It as a moment where I truly grasped what a scar this tragedy left in the heart of the parents and of many Koreans.

The sinking of the Saewol

The MV Saewol was  a ferry ensuring the liaison between Incheon (near Seoul) and Jeju, a very famous holiday island in Korea. On 16 July 2014, the Saewol sank while carrying 476 passengers, of which a large part were secondary school students from Danwon High School.

The ship had multiple issues with its cargo capacities and its weighting. As a consequence, when it took a series of turns too quickly, it began listing to port, eventually taking in water and sinking in two and a half hours.

The tragedy was compounded by reports that the ship’s crew called passengers to stay put, even as the ship was taking water into the passenger compartments. Trained to be listening to authority, many of the young students obeyed the instructions, despite the desperate situation. The captain of the ship and her crew eventually abandoned the ship, while keeping on instructing passengers to stay put. Obviously, many of the students who followed the instructions went down with the ship.

A tragedy turns into a criticism of the whole society

This shocked the whole country and after the bodies of many of the students were recovered, their smartphones were also found. Some desperate and heart-rendering accounts of last farewells came through. For the families, a further degree of grief was reached when learning that the students died in atrocious conditions, drowning with a terrible agony. One can only imagine how the heart of loving parents was affected.

The incorrect instructions given by the crew of the Saewol, and the obedience of the kids to these absurd orders, further led the Korean society to question its own organization and respect for authority. Similarly, the lack of regulations and the fact that the coast guard were not even aware of restrictions placed on the ship by its inspection authorities only helped fuel the anger.

Grieving parents

Many parents, inflamed by remarks by journalists and/or politicians that they should not criticize the government or that the deaths were of little importance compared to car accidents, took to the streets to protest. More largely, the movement was still visible on Saejong-daro, the main avenue facing directly the Gyeongbokgung, the ancient royal palace. It is where I had probably my most moving encounter, with a lone father, holding a stand at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the tragedy.

Stand of Saewol victims in Seoul
The lone stand of the Saewol victims parents in Seoul

This father asked me to sign a petition whereby, they wished to ask the Korean government to enhance safety rules for ships. He told me how much he missed his son. When I signed his petition, he gave me what has become the symbol of the movement in Korea: a little yellow and orange ribbon which you can see on the picture below.

Memorial to victims of Saewol
A makeshift memorial to the victims of the Saewol tragedy

The parents of these kids have suffered an unexplained and painful loss. But some of them took the pain from this loss and transformed it in energy to try and change the situation in a country where established authority and practices are difficult to question.

A moving encounter

Most of my posts on this blog are about travel and the experience of visiting new places in Asia and in other countries. However, what I enjoy most in these travels is encountering people and understanding their lives. And although painfully moving, this encounter has been also one of the most emotional in my trip. Meeting a grieving father and sharing a few moments with him, while he tried to avoid other parents suffering the same fate brings a renewed faith in humanity.

These Korean parents deserve our support from wherever we may stand. 4 million signatures were collected by the parents, but the South Korean parliament still has to legislate on stronger rules. The strength of vested interests still preempts the grief of families. If you wish to learn more or support these families in their fight to change this situation, you can sign the petition or get more information here. And if you are in Seoul, do not hesitate to take some time to go and visit the memorial for the victims.

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