Escape from Kwangju, 29 May 1980

I did not write any field notes for May 29, 1980, so I cannot recheck my memory of leaving Kwangju as the most frightening experience of my life. The day before, May 28, things had eased up a bit, and it was possible to go out. I went out to look at the cleanup operation. Soldiers with shovels were cleaning up piles of trash and refuse. There were cordons around some buildings, ID checks at a few places, and still no telephone calls or bus transportation outside the city. In the afternoon I went to visit friends and also to the Kwangju District Court, where the judges were at work, but I learned it would be the next week before I could resume my research. Downtown I had met up with Don Baker, a fellow graduate student and former Peace Corps Volunteer in Kwangju, who had come down from Seoul to check on his wife’s relatives. He stayed with my family that night, and the next day I decided to go along with him back to Seoul.

We set out in the late morning on Thursday, May 29. The streets were full, taxis were running, and the city bus system had just resumed operation. We took a taxi to Songjong-ni, at the edge of town. Others were having to get out of their taxis and walk over a bridge, through lines of troops, to get to the suburban taxis waiting on the other side, but somehow we were allowed to ride through. A tout was yelling, “To Seoul by bus for 10,000 W!”–about five times the usual price, but we hopped into his cab for the ride to the Songjong-ni station.

The station was packed, and we sat in a hot bus for forty-five minutes while, amid confusion and heckling from other exasperated passengers, the driver waited until the bus was full (to overflowing–a seat in the aisle went for a discounted 8,000 W).

We were actually on a local express bus (chikhaeng), supposedly destined for a nearby county. So initially we headed there through the countryside. The normal five-hour trip to Seoul took over eight hours, the first four spent on back roads to Chongup, where we could get on the expressway to Seoul. As we quickly learned, the highway was closed in South Cholla Province; getting to Seoul first involved eluding various roadblocks and military checkpoints to get out of the province.

We were stopped eight or ten times, each a slightly different experience. Soldiers would board the bus, sometimes with guns and bayonets at the ready, once only with pistols. Sometimes they were polite, but more often, surly. They asked for citizens’ ID cards and inspected our faces closely. Once, all the male passengers were ordered off, with their luggage, for a thorough search. (The men immediately took the opportunity to wander off to relieve themselves, to the distress of the soldiers.) “What do you do?” they would interrogate some young man. “You visited your brother? His name? Your employer? Phone number?” The first time, some unemployed youth said that they had gone to Kwangju “to play.” When the bus pulled out again, their fellow passengers advised them, “Don’t say that! Say you are a farmer or a minister.” At the next roadblock, one of them tried it out, replying that he was a minister. He was hauled off the bus and detained. As we went on without him, the passengers agreed he should have said he was a priest instead.

At one stop, we were ordered to turn around; a soldier got on the bus and said we had all been “taken” by the driver. Only the persistence of a white-collar worker (who outtalked the soldier) got us going again. Occasionally we were hailed by farmers standing beside the road who thought we really were a country bus heading where our sign said “This presents a problem” (kunil natta) muttered the bus driver, letting the people on, then dropping them off as soon as we were out of sight of soldiers and other onlookers.

Finally, we reached the expressway and picked up speed on our way to Seoul. As a suburban bus with South Cholla Province plates, we were rather conspicuous. Twice our bus was stopped by patrolling cops. “How much did you pay him?” came a voice from the back as we pulled away from the first such incident. We were all nervous when at 10 P.M. we approached the tollbooth just before Seoul. All vehicles were being checked, but we got special treatment. A soldier pointing a gun at all of us and saying, “Don’t move!” directed the driver across several lanes of traffic. We were boarded by eight men, one in civilian clothes. People were pulled off for questioning, then allowed back on. “What is this, checkpoint eight or nine?” grumbled one passenger. From outside, a soldier replied, “You should have been checked at least fifteen times!” The stop was short but tense. When we were finally allowed on our way, everyone cheered, and one man ventured the opinion, “At 10,000 W, this was cheap!”

They unloaded us in a hurry in front of the new express bus terminal in Kangnam at 10:15 P.M., less than two hours before curfew. As a country bus with the wrong markings, the best the driver could do was pull in with a lot of city buses and hope no one would notice. At that time, the bus terminal was in the middle of nowhere, and even getting a taxi was a problem. I went to a telephone booth and starting calling friends to see who could put me up for the night.

SOURCE: Laying Claim to the Memory of May: A Look Back at the 1980 Kwangju Uprising, by Linda S. Lewis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2002), pp. 56-58

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