|▲ The mural painting on the wall beside the Sorokdo National Hospital
Two and a half hours from Gwangju by bus, there is a beautiful island in the southwest sea of Korea. The first words that came to mind when the island came into view were beautiful, peaceful, and lonely. An emerald sea under the flawless sky was laid before my eyes. It is Sorokdo named for its shape that is similar to a small deer. But this island has a deep scar of sorrow, it has been the largest community of Hansen’s disease patients for almost 100 years. Visitors are not allowed to enter some areas of the island. As visitors walk in to a park, right next to the National Sorokdo Hospital, they may feel a totally different atmosphere from a sea side road.
The Isolated Island with a Deep Gash Inside
The island, having a population of 890, is well known for its sad history of Hansen’s disease. Under the colonial administration of imperial Japan, the Japanese government isolated leprosy patients on the island connected to the mainland only by a ferry. They thought that the lepers walking around in the streets degraded the nation and a lot of people were afraid of being infected or were scared of their appearance. However, the hospital on the island did not offer appropriate treatment to the patients. There were only 261 staff members in the institution responsible for 6000 patients. Moreover, the patients suffered from forced labor, abuse and confinement. What a contradiction that the patients who needed care and protection were under the pressure of severe labor.
Behind the hospital, there is a central park which is the result of the patients’ labor at that time. There is a phrase; Patients in the Sorok-do die three times. First, when they come down with leprosy. Second, when they are anatomized after death. Third, when they are burned after autopsy. In addition, to avoid reproduction among patients, all the people suffering from leprosy were sterilized. Next to the park, a red brick building used as a sterilization room is preserved with the tragic history in it. Even after Korea achieved independence, things did not change. They were still not allowed to leave the island and not allowed to marry. Some patients have received compensation but there is still a long way to go.
People Live in the Peaceful Island
Many people are aware that Sorokdo is not a diseased or sorrowful island anymore. People, owever, cast doubts on the fact. Therefore, this Tribune reporter met an interesting person who has worked in the island for almost 20 years. “Now there are only 9 leprosy patients in the island. As well, there is little possibility of contagion. Hansen’s disease can be treated by just a simple medical treatment. Many people still have negative thoughts about the disease patients. I would like to tell you not to be afraid of visiting Sorokdo,” said Oh Eun-jeong, staff member at the General Affairs of the National Sorokdo Hospital. She also added, “If you run into local residents on the island, just treat them as ordinary elderly people. They are not an object of fright.” If you visit the island, you are able to see the signs warning not to enter all around the island. You might think the signs are for visitors to protect from the disease. But no. The signs are to protect the residents of the island from them. They have gone through the horrible experience and now have a trauma to be seen as dangerous people. In some way, it is our responsibility to heal them. They are our families. We must make an effort together. It is a dark part of our history which we should face and overcome.
An easy way to take part in healing Sorokdo is volunteering. Many parts of the island need help. If you have time then, go for it. Every year many people come to the island to volunteer. You can easily see volunteers strolling around the park on the island. There are more than 6 volunteering programs; effort volunteering, technology volunteering, culture volunteering and so on. You can choose what you can do for the elderly in the hospital and the town. Take some time to visit Sorokdo on vacation or weekends. It may require hard work, but it will be a very meaningful time to understand more about the island and the patients. You will be proud of helping people in need. If you want to volunteer for the people on the island, visit the website (www.sorokdo.go.kr) and learn more about the volunteering programs.
Why Not Visit the Island
This upcoming May is Sorokdo National Hospital’s 100th anniversary. The 13th memorial ceremony and a sports ceremony are planned. Besides, more than ten events, such as a small music concert, a homecoming day for people who have devoted their time to the island but have left for now, and a food festival, will be held. The cultural center with a museum and a gym will also open in May. In this article, you can find that there are various things that you can enjoy on the island. Pay a visit to the island and pay attention to their suffering. Once you step onto the island, you will be able to feel that you made the right step. There is no doubt that as the weather gets warmer, the beautiful blue ocean will be more attractive. The scenery is lovelier than in the photos. Do not forget. It is our duty to remember the grief and weaken them. How about visiting Sorokdo to enjoy the events and scenery as well as understanding the island?
By Lee So-yi, Tribune Reporter