I recently came across two stories that are horrifying and amazing in equal measure. They chronicle the depths of human depravity and suffering, and yet offer stirring testaments to human strength and dignity.
The first story is about Shin In Geun, the only person known to have escaped one of North Korea’s infamous labor camps after being born there, and details the incredible abuse, savagery, and paranoia that he was born into. How bad was it? He betrayed his own mother and brother after learning of their desire to escape, and was subsequently imprisoned and tortured for simply being related to people contemplating escape.
Some time later, voices from the kitchen woke him. He peeked through the bedroom door. His mother was cooking rice. For Shin, this was a slap in the face. He had been served the same tasteless gruel he had eaten every day of his life. Now his brother was getting rice. Shin guessed she must have stolen it, a few grains at a time. Shin fumed. He also listened. Shin heard that Shin He Geun had not been given the day off. He had walked out without permission. His mother and brother were discussing what they should do.
Escape. Shin was astonished to hear his brother say the word. He did not hear his mother say that she intended to go along. But she was not trying to argue, even though she knew that if he escaped or died trying, she and others in her family would be tortured and probably killed. Every prisoner knew the first rule of Camp 14, subsection 2: “Any witness to an attempted escape who fails to report it will be shot immediately.”
His heart pounded. He was angry that she would put his life at risk for the sake of his brother. He was also jealous that his brother was getting rice. Shin’s camp-bred instincts took over: he had to tell a guard. Shin ran back to school. It was 1am. Who could he tell? In the crowded dormitory, Shin woke his friend Hong Sung Jo. Hong told him to tell the school’s night guard.
“I need to say something to you,” Shin told the guard, “but before I do, I want something in return.” Shin demanded more food and to be named grade leader at school, a position that would allow him to work less and not be beaten as often. The guard agreed, then told Shin and Hong to go back to get some sleep.
On the morning after he betrayed his mother and brother, uniformed men came to the schoolyard for Shin. He was handcuffed, blindfolded and driven in silence to an underground prison.
However, in the midst of such brutality, Shin experienced small measures of grace and mercy that stirred within him the desire for something more. He encountered two men, one while still imprisoned after betraying his family and the other several years later, who treated him with kindness and respect, cared for him when he was sick, and told him of a world outside the prison walls. He finally worked up the courage to make a break for it, and head for China. One can only imagine how he made the trek given the weakened and battered state he was in:
Before Shin crawled through that electric fence and ran off into the snow, no one born in a North Korean political prison camp had ever escaped. As far as can be determined, Shin is still the only one to do so.
He was 23 years old and knew no one. He slept in pig pens, haystacks and freight trains. He ate whatever he could find. He stole and traded on the black market. He was helped, exploited and betrayed. His legs hurt and he was hungry and cold, yet he was exhilarated. He felt like an alien fallen to earth.
In late January 2005, he walked all day — about 18 miles — looking for a stretch of the Tumen river to cross into China. Pretending to be a soldier, he bribed his way through border checkpoints with crackers and cigarettes. “I’m dying of hunger here,” the last soldier said. He looked to be about 16. “Don’t you have anything to eat?” Shin gave him bean-curd sausage, cigarettes and a bag of sweets.
Shallow and frozen, the river here was about a hundred yards wide. He began to walk. Halfway across, he broke through and icy water soaked his shoes. He crawled the rest of the way to China.
The second story chronicles another arduous journey, this time of a woman’s efforts to leave behind a life of slavery in Mauritania. Marieme (not her real name) became a slave when she was 3 or 4, and was forced to walk long distances every day to gather water and wood. She was raped when she was 12 and her brothers and sisters were given away as gifts to other slaveowners. However, even in this horrible setting, she experienced an awakening. One, ironically, brought on by her owner’s son:
Slaves in Mauritania often do not have identity papers and are not allowed to go to school. But Marieme was given a secret education.
When the master wasn’t around, his son took her into the family’s study and taught her to read and write. He also gave her French lessons; it became their code language. No one else in the family spoke it.
The master’s son was himself well-educated. He told Marieme about life outside the farm — about a world without slavery. He said she should be free; that she and her family should not have to work in abusive conditions without pay.
This system, he said, robbed them of their human dignity.
Awakened to those ideas, Marieme would never let them go.
Unfortunately, her first escape attempt failed. She ended up at the house of another slave owner who promptly returned her. Needless to say, her owner was not pleased:
“They bound my wrists and ankles and tied me to a date tree in the middle of the family compound, and left me there for a week,” she told attorneys when she applied for asylum. “He beat me many times during that week. He cut my wrists with a razor, so that I bled terribly. There was so much blood that he had me brought to a doctor, who sewed up the wounds. As soon as I returned, the chief of the family tied me up again. He refused me food while I was tied up. A few times at night, while everyone was sleeping, my mother snuck me a little bit of food. She had to feed me, because my hands were bound.”
The message was clear:
If you run again, I’ll kill you.
Undeterred, she made another attempt several years later, after her parents died. Another slave stole some money and used it to pay a smuggler to take Marieme to Senegal. And here comes what might be the most heart-wrenching part of the story: Marieme had to leave her six children behind. She would eventually travel to America over sea, and in 1999, arrived in a Baltimore safe house. I won’t spoil the ending because I want you to read the entire harrowing account, but it is a happy one.
Unfortunately, though Mauritania has technically outlawed slavery and made it a crime in 2007, only one slave owner has been successfully prosecuted. It is estimated that 10% — 20% of Mauritania’s 3.4 million people still live in slavery. More info on Mauritania’s situation, as well as yet another powerful story, can be found on CNN at “Slavery’s last stronghold”.