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Pain lingers on for families of Cheonan fallen

Deceased sailor’s father wants to bring ‘leader of main enemy’ to justice


This is the second of a two-part series to mark the first anniversary of the sinking of the corvette Cheonan. ― Ed.

One year after the sinking of the corvette Cheonan, survivors and bereaved families still cannot believe they can meet their loved ones only in dreams occasionally, never in the flesh.

To get on with their lives, some tried hard to blot out all traces of their sons, husbands or shipmates. But they all ended up realizing that it was better to leave them in their hearts and just wait for the throes of sorrow to abate little by little.

“I still cannot believe (my son died). I feel he would show up right now in front of me if I call my youngest son by his name,” grim-faced Na Jae-bong, 53, told The Korea Herald.

“I want to believe he is still working at his base and too busy to take a leave of absence to come back home.”

His son, Petty Officer Third Class Na Hyeon-min, was one of the 46 sailors who died after their 1,200-ton warship carrying 104 seamen sank in the West Sea following an unprovoked torpedo attack by North Korea on March 26, 2010.

After he buried his son at the national cemetery in Daejeon where the rest of the fallen soldiers were laid to rest, Na and his family moved to a new house, hoping that the heart-rending memories of his son would dissipate.

But, Na, who still feels regret for failing to rescue his son from the frigid waters, has decided to live with the memories, which have helped him encounter his son in dreams.

Na Jae-bong
Na Jae-bong

“I wish I could meet him in dreams as many times as possible. I have seen him only three times. I have made a new room for him and always greet him in the photo hung in the room. I always sleep there, eagerly hoping he will appear in my dreams,” Na said.

“I have left all his belongings in his room ― his books, pens, socks, clothes and everything. I want them to stay there as they are with his smell on them so that I can sense his presence. With them, I apologize to him that I failed to protect him.”

Na vividly remembers the shock that gripped his family and relatives when they first heard the news reports of the tragic sinking, the worst peacetime naval disaster since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

“When I first heard the news, I hoped that my son was not aboard the ship as I heard the sailors change their ships regularly. When my son’s name was found on the list of those caught in the sunken vessel, I thought that was not my son, but a solider with the same name,” he said.

“When I was escorted to the scene of the sinking, I saw the strong waves and currents, which made me realize it was too difficult to rescue the sailors in the frigid waters. Then, I just prayed I could retrieve his body. I was worried his body would be damaged or lost in the tidal currents.”

Na has lost about 10 kilograms since the death of his son as he has lost the desire to eat.

“When you lose your child, you lose any desire to eat anything and enjoy anything. I have not gone back to the office yet as I don’t feel any desire to earn more money.”

On the occasion of the first anniversary of the sinking, Na said he wants to file a complaint with the international criminal court to bring “the leader of the main enemy” to justice.

“Over the past year, I have been stupefied over the fact that my beloved son has gone to a place I cannot go to. Now that I have begun awakening from the shock, I feel the urge to bring the leader of the main enemy to justice,” he said. “By doing that, we can remind people of the sacrifice of the 46 warriors and honor their spirits.”

The 58 survivors of the sinking are also suffering from the traumatic experience of losing their shipmates. Eight of them have been discharged from the military upon completing their service.

Ahn Jae-geun, one of the survivors who got discharged about a month ago, is trying to get back to a normal civilian life. But with potent memories of the sinking, Ahn still finds it difficult to overcome the trauma. 

Ahn Jae-geun (third from right) and his shipmates on the corvette Cheonan about a month before North Korea’s torpedo attack in March 2010. (Ahn Jae-geun)
Ahn Jae-geun (third from right) and his shipmates on the corvette Cheonan about a month before North Korea’s torpedo attack in March 2010. (Ahn Jae-geun)


“I still suffer from nightmares. In the horrible dreams, I was trapped inside the ship and sank into the cold waters with it,” Ahn, a 23-year-old now at university in Daegu, told The Korea Herald.

“But I am happy when I meet the deceased sailors in my dreams. They often tell me where they died in the ship and then I burst into tears, thinking of how terrible it must have been for them.”

Ahn was one of the few soldiers who made it out of the sinking ship relatively unscathed. And despite the threat to his own life, Ahn rescued some of his fellow soldiers.

“I was fortunately on a night shift in full gear. When the ship was attacked, all lights went out and I was hurled to the ground with a huge banging sound. Then, I realized the ship was tilted to the starboard side and I was stepping on the wall, not the floor,” Ahn said.

“I was the only one who carried my personal flashlight. With the light, I saw many of my shipmates ― wearing their underwear only ― bleeding and rolling on the ground in pain. Some fell to the ground in the shower room. I desperately tried to rescue them. The memories of that urgent moment still gives me the chills.”

Ahn said that his animosity toward the belligerent state has deepened following the incident, saying the South should take more “immediate, stern” action should a similar provocation take place in the future.

“I had thought of North Korea just as an enemy. But it is now a murderer that killed 46 of my shipmates. Seoul should change its passive attitude to respond to North Korean provocations into an active one,” Ahn said.

Although the incident has given him an indelible scar in his heart, Ahn is willing to keep it in the journey of his life as a reminder of the sacrifice of his shipmates.

“The sad incident has made me mature. It was surely the most critical event in my life that made me live my life to the fullest to make up for what they have lost,” he said.

Ahn also expressed displeasure that some of the Navy officials were reprimanded following the sinking.

“I felt bad to see some survivors facing punishment. Although they tried their best to deal with the urgent situation, they are now treated as if they were guilty ― when they should be praised for their courage. That is bad.”

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)



<관련 기사>

<천안함1년> 아물지 않은 상처들

"아들아 보고 싶다"..아른거려 정든 집도 떠나

(전국종합=연합뉴스) 천안함 폭침으로 '46용사'가 희생된지 1년이란 짧지 않은 시간이 흘렀지만 유족이나 동료에게 남겨진 상처는 아직도 아물지 않고 있다.

유족들은 가족 품에서 영원히 떠난 아들이나 남편, 형제에 대한 그리움에  밤잠을 설치기도 하고, "지금이라도 전화를 걸어오지 않을까" 착각에 빠졌다가 가슴이 무너지는 듯한 슬픔에 젖곤 한다.

1주기를 맞은 요즘 그들의 홈피는 그리움과 추모의 글로 다시 뜨거워지고 있다.

 ◇유족들 아픔은 현재진행형 = 울산시 중구에 사는 고(故) 손수민 중사의 부모는 아들이 계속 아른거려 작년 7월 살던 집을 세주고 다른 동네로 이사했다.

하지만 이사한 집에서도 아들을 잊지 못하다 결국 아들 방을 따로 마련해 손 중사의 손길이 닿았던 유품들로 방을 꾸몄다. 

아들의 위패가 있는 양산의 통도사를 매주 찾는 손 중사의 어머니 전미경(50) 씨는 "아들이 항상 곁에 있는 것만 같다"며 "(가족끼리) 서로에게 상처를 줄까 봐 모른 척하지만, 아직 괴롭다"며 눈시울을 붉혔다.

이제 돌아오지 않을 아들이기에 유품을 정리해야겠다는 생각을 할 때도 있지만, 미안한 마음에 아직 못하고 있다.

고 신선준 상사의 부모 역시 지난해 울산시 남구의 집을 처분하고 인근  양산으로 이주했다. 마을 사람과 마주칠 때마다 위축된 모습을 감출 수 없어서다.

신 상사의 아버지 신국현(60) 씨는 사회생활을 하기 어려울 정도로 괴로울 때가 잦아 운영하던 철물점을 동생에게 물려준 채 일손까지 놓아 버렸다.

아들의 기일(음력)인 지난 14일에는 제사를 지내고, 그동안 한결같이 보관해 둔 옷가지 대부분을 태웠다.

그는 "항상 생각나는 아들이지만, 되돌아올 수 없잖아요…"라며 말을 잇지 못했다.

고 심영빈 중사의 아버지 심대일(63)씨는 지금도 '아들이 전화를 하지 않았을까' 문득문득 휴대전화를 확인하곤 한다. 지방을 다니며 일할 당시 아들이 밤낮으로 "건강하시라"며 전화를 걸어오던 생생한 기억 때문에 생긴 버릇이다.

구입한 지 오래돼 휴대전화가 낡았지만 사건 당일 아들이 보낸 문자가 보관돼 있어 바꾸지 않고 있다고 한다.

"사고 발생 1년이 됐지만 (아들이) 군복무를 좀 더 오래하고 있다는 생각으로 하루하루를 견디고 있다"는 고 장철희 일병의 어머니, "뼈가 저릴 만큼 아들이 보고싶다"는 고 민평기 상사의 어머니 윤창자 씨…. 46용사의 유족들에게 아들이나 남편, 형제를 떠나보낸 아픔은 여전히 현재진행형이었다.

◇생존장병들, 잊히지 않는 그날의 악몽 = 천안함 장병 생존자 58명 가운데  50명이 해군에 남아 다시 배를 타고 바다로 나가거나 육지 근무를 하고 있다. 

안재근(23)씨를 비롯한 나머지 8명은 제대를 해 입대전 다니던 대학에 복학하거나 부상을 치료하면서 평범한 일상으로 돌아가려고 애를 쓰지만 당시의 정신적 충격에서 쉽게 벗어나지 못하고 있다.

천안함 함장이었던 최원일(42) 중령은 현재 충남 계룡대 역사기록관리단에서 근무 중이다. 그는 언론과의 접촉을 피하고 있다. 해군 관계자는 최 중령이 "전사한 부하들이 계속 생각나서 심적으로 많이 어렵다"고 털어놓았다면서 "얼굴에 항상  그늘이 져 있는 것 같아 무척 안타깝다"고 전했다.

천안함 작전관이었던 박연수(28) 대위는 "46용사 전우들과 함께하지 못했다는 자책감이 생존 장병에게 가장 힘들었던 부분 중 하나"라며 "그 아픔을 딛고  일어서려고 다들 노력하고 있다"고 해군에 남아있는 천안함 생존장병들의 안부를 전했다.

◇46용사 미니홈피..다시 뜨거워지는 그리움 = "곧 있을 1주기가… 왜 이리 하늘이 무심하게 느껴지는지 모르겠네요", "거기도 따뜻하냐. 여기도 서서히 따뜻해지는구나"

고 손수민 중사의 여동생은 수시로 오빠의 '싸이월드 미니홈페이지'에 들어간다. 미니홈피에는 지금도 손 중사의 학교 선후배와 친구들이 방명록에 많은 그리움의 글을 남기고 있다.

손 중사만이 아니다. 지난해 사건 직후 추모와 애도의 글로 넘쳐났던 46용사의 미니홈피는 천안함 1주기를 맞은 3월 들어 고인들을 그리워하는 네티즌의 글로 달궈지고 있다.
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