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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Koreaby Barbara Demick
Prologue; The Guard
My second day at the Saro-cheong Detention Center, I was sent to work weeding the rice fields. The task was exhausting, slogging for hours through the flooded rows of dirt, pulling at the weeds and digging down with my fingers for the grub-white roots, but at least it got my fellow inmates and me away from the prison. Even though I’d been homeless for more than two years by then, and had dealt with gangsters and corrupt police and starvation, the place terrified me. The day before, I’d seen a teenager beaten so severely I was sure he was brain-damaged, and darkness had brought the shrieks of girls being raped in the next room. The detention center had once been a school, in fact the best art school in Hoeryong, but now, like many things in the city, it was broken and wild, a place of seething chaos.
Around noon, we marched under a hot sun back to the detention center for lunch. Not knowing the routine, I simply followed everyone else, trying not to stick out. After eating our meager portions of cornmeal, the guard, a lean teenager with an angry face, yelled to us: “It is your break time.” I watched as the other boys lay down and fell asleep, all in a matter of twenty seconds. I could tell how precious this time was by how fast they dropped to the floor. I, too, was exhausted and found a spot to lay my head.
I fell asleep soon after and dozed among the others. After I don’t know how many minutes, I heard a voice calling in my dreams: “Up, up.” I opened my eyes. The guard was screaming at us, stomping up and down the rows of sleeping boys, threatening the slow ones with the long stick ?— ?actually the handle of a garden hoe ?— ?he held menacingly in his right hand. Everyone began scrambling to find his or her shoes that sat in a pile at the center of the room. My hands shook. I found one shoe but not the other. I was stooped over, hunting among the remaining pairs, when something struck me between the shoulder blades with great force.
“Bastard! Why are you so slow?”
I turned, crouched in pain. It was the guard. He’d struck me on the spine with the long stick. It hurt terribly, but I managed not to fall over. I knew that showing weakness here could mean death. I bowed to the guard, his face twisted in a bright grin, as the flesh above my spine throbbed.
“Please, sir,” I said, “I’m looking for my shoes.”
He raised the stick again and screamed “Bastard!” He slammed it down on my left shoulder, trying to break the collarbone. I wanted to kill him, but I thought he must have allies among the other guards and they would come for me when the sky grew dark.
From this day on, the guard chose me as his number-one victim. I learned later that his parents had been big shots in Hoeryong but had fallen from grace for some mysterious reason. The guard had been abandoned and then sent to detention as a Kkotjebi, as all the homeless children were known, where his connections got him a job watching over the other inmates. Consumed by bitterness, he attacked people for no reason at all. And he made a special case out of me.
I learned to put my shoes in a place where I could find them, but the guard didn’t care. Bastard was my name, and beatings were my regular fate. Sometimes he hit me with the big stick; other times he slapped my face with his open hand. I only bowed in response. But rage was building up inside me. I could feel the blood pump hot to my face when he slapped it.
Out on the streets, I was considered a good fighter for my age. I was even feared by some. But people were treated like animals at the detention center, often brutally beaten by a dozen men at a time. No one could stand up to that.
One day, after weeks of this treatment, I heard the guard approach me from behind.
“Hey, bastard,” he said, almost jovially. I could feel the eagerness in his voice, the anticipation of a good slap, a release of his hatred and frustration from his skin into mine. It was almost like he craved the letting go of the dark electricity that had built up in him all morning. I could feel how he savored these moments. I had always been sensitive to others’ emotions, even my enemies’.
But today, I couldn’t take the thought of him touching me. I spun around.
“Why are you always picking on me?” I cried, my voice breaking. “Leave me alone, please. Leave me alone or else!” Even as I said it, I knew that I’d opened myself up to danger. But it was too late to take the words back.
The guard’s face went still with surprise. Then it blushed dark and his eyes slitted.
“How dare you talk back to me!” he said in a low voice.
We began shouting at each other, the other boys gathering, wide-eyed, to watch. The team leader heard what was going on and came running over.
“What’s happening?” he said, pushing boys aside. “What are you two yelling about?”
Before the guard could open his mouth, I quickly spoke up. I described what had been happening under the team leader’s nose. He listened and nodded, gesturing for the furious guard to be silent. When I finished, I saw the team leader’s eyes were glinting with pleasure.
“I don’t need to hear any more. I will do what’s fair! And that means only one thing: you two will fight it out!”
The team leader looked very pleased with himself. He was clearly bored with his daily routine, and here was an opportunity for a little excitement.
I knew that losing the fight would be dangerous. The guard would have total control over me, and because I had humiliated him by defying him in public, he would show no mercy. I decided I would do whatever it took to win.
The team leader gathered all the boys together in the center of our room. I studied my opponent. He was bigger and heavier, but I knew he’d led a more privileged life while I’d been on the street. You are mentally stronger, I said to myself. Whatever you do, don’t give up.
The guard and I grabbed each other by the shoulders and arms and pushed back and forth, grunting with the effort. He quickly slipped his hand away and landed a punch on my jaw, mashing the flesh against my teeth. I tasted blood and this frightened me. I shoved him back, trying to topple him over. But he was stronger than I thought. After a few minutes of furious wrestling, my left knee gave way and I rolled to the ground. The guard’s hands went to my throat as he fell on me. We rolled back and forth, punching each other and snorting for air. The minutes stretched on and on. I saw in my peripheral vision that the other team leaders had joined us. I could hear bottles of moonshine clink as they were set down on the concrete.
After twenty minutes of wrestling and blows, my arms were slick with sweat. I was exhausted. It felt as if my arms were hanging from their sockets by thin strings. But I had more to lose, and I’d always been a stubborn fighter. I threw the guard to the ground and climbed on top of him, sitting on his heaving chest. I pinned both his hands with my left hand and started punching him in the face as he turned it this way and that, trying to evade my blows. I felt no rage anymore, no emotion at all. I was like a miner gouging out a seam of coal. There was no hatred left in me, only determination.
Bang, I gashed his lower lip on his teeth. Again. I took a deep breath, leaned forward, and gritted my teeth. Bang. Harder. Bang. A spurt of blood drifted up, then fell to his cheek.
“I give up!” he shouted finally. A cheer went up from some of the spectators while others blew out their breath in disgust.
I rolled off the guard and lay on the floor, gasping.
I’d survived yet again.
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