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Yeonpyeong gearing up for recovery but scars linger

Residents step up repair to return to newly-built homes on 1st anniversary of bombing

YEONPYEONGDO -- In early November, the northwestern South Korean island of Yeonpyeongdo was bustling.

Builders were everywhere reconstructing the village ruined by North Korea’s bombing on the island a year ago on Nov. 23.

They were reconstructing ruined housings, air-raid shelters, a public health care center and a monument to the victims of the shelling. Just 3-4 kilometers from the Northern Limit Line separating the two Koreas, people were busy trying to erase the reminders of a year ago.

“We are trying hard to recover from all the ruins by Nov. 23, the first anniversary,” said Shin Seong-man, the head of the Yeonpyeong town office.

Refugees whose homes were burnt down in the attack,are still staying at a provisional shelter on a playground of Yeonpyeong Elementary School. They will return to their newly-built homes on the day, he said.

“It is little early to talk about recovering from the attack. We are still in the process,” said Choi Sung-il, a local resident who was directing part of the repair work.

The residents seemingly had no fear of another attack by North Korea, but could not get rid of lingering anxiety when talking about last November.

“It was fortunate that people weren’t at home when the shelling took place. Most men were out fishing while women were out on the bay to collect oysters. That’s why the number of victims was small, given the astonishing number of shells poured on the island,” said Lee Jeong-mook, who is in charge of the Civil Defense Corp of the township.

When the shelling broke out, he and several other civil servants ran all over the island to search for the injured. He collected the dead bodies of the late Kim Chi-baek and Bae Bok-cheol who were hit by the shrapnel.

“We tried our best but we did not collect all of their remains,” he said.

Nurses Lim Yeon-jeong and Jung Yi-sun of the local public health care center confessed that they still get frightened from time to time.

“Whenever I hear a loud noise I panic,” Lim said. At the time of shelling, shrapnel penetrated the walls of the center, where she was assisting a suture. She had to escape to a shelter but the pouring shells terrified her.

“It was the most frightening day of my life,” she said.

Some showed dissatisfaction with the government measures after the attack. This year the number of Yeonpyeong residents increased to 1,900, up about 200 from the previous year, after more troops were dispatched to the island.

However, what really makes the residents insecure are diehard rumors about huge compensation given to the residents and people, which focus on external reinforcements while ignoring their psychological needs.

According to the public health care center, about half of the residents are suffering from posttraumatic stress disorders but the government has not provided any professional programs yet for them except for asking local doctors to be more prudent and thoughtful and be a good listener during treatments. The nurses haven’t received any therapy either.

“There is simply no budget and the central government seems unconcerned about this area,” said Shim Jae-bong, head of the healthcare center.

The residents decided to keep the site of one of the destroyed buildings as a “relic” to remind them of what happened on that day and keep them together.

At the end of the main road, the ruin was covered in plastic sheets, awaiting protective glass walls. Underneath the sheets was the undeniable truth about the day. The walls were smashed and shards of smashed doors, concrete and glasses were everywhere: It was a life-or-death situation.

“This is Yeonpyeong,” Shim said.

By Bae Ji-sook