“The restoration of human rights is the fruit of sweat and sacrifice of so many people. Peace is given to those who cherish it.” –No Gun Ri Peace Memoria Museum
Earlier this year, we visited the No Gun Ri Peace Memorial. I had never heard of this place before, so let me give you some background. During the Korean War, a group of refugees were escorted from their villages by US troops, under the pretext of transporting them to a safer village in the mountains. During the trip, the refugees woke up one night and the troops had disappeared, so they continue their journey alone. Later, they ran into more troops who told them to follow a rail road path towards their destination. The refugees complied, and once they were along the rail road, planes started dropping bombs on them. The refugees ran into a tunnel underneath the rail road tracks. The US troops set up a machine gun on a hill and repeatedly fired into the tunnel for three days. Most of the refugees who died were women, children, and the elderly. There were at least 226 victims, with more unconfirmed. To make matters worse, it was revealed during an investigation (50 years later) that the whole incident was under/misreported in the US military records.
This investigation was started because of the courage and demands of the victims of the massacre. Eventually, with the help of journalists in Seoul and the US, the truth came out. The investigation culminated in a statement from President Bill Clinton expressing “regret” over the incident and the release of two reports on the massacre, one each from the American and South Korean governments. The site, called No Gun Ri because it is the name of the village closest to the incident, has been turned into a peace memorial. A few weeks ago, we had the privilege to be invited for a memorial service for the victims at the No Gun Ri Memorial. Present were not just family members but also the American journalist who helped break the story and further the investigation in the US. We also got to hear some of the family members ask her questions about more work that can be done.
These questions really surprised me. Outside of an outright apology from the US government, what work could be left? The truth was already out. But it turns out that recognition of the truth is only one step in the healing process. And I don’t mean healing only for the victims of the event. I mean healing for the perpetrators as well. The American journalist said that some of the former US soldiers she interviewed were ashamed of their involvement. Many of them were young men at the time, just following orders. One of them still couldn’t sleep at night, because in his mind, he would always see the people he killed.
The leaders of the surviving refugee family members would like soldiers that participated in the No Gun Ri massacre to come to the memorial and meet with the survivors. This is an incredible idea. The purpose of the meeting is not to shame to the soldiers. It is a chance for healing for both groups, and even reconciliation. Instead of demonizing the soldiers who killed their loved ones, the victims recognize the humanity of those that wronged them. They see the soldiers as victims of this incident as well. And they know that these people also need healing. Of course, many of the soldiers have passed away, so the families of the No Gun Ri incident would like family members of those soldiers to come instead. I don’t how feasible or likely that is to occur. But I pray that it will happen.
In war time situations, it is so easy to demonize the “other” side of the conflict, especially the perpetrators. But the survivors of No Gun Ri refuse to let anger and sadness be the end of the story. They are pursuing healing for everyone involved. Through that healing process, they can create a new relationship with the soldiers, one shaped not purely by violence and loss. But a relationship also shaped by hope. Hope for reconciliation between all the victims of war across the world. And most importantly, hope for peace.