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Posted : 2010-01-31 16:53
Updated : 2010-01-31 16:53

January 1951: Life of Korean War Refugees in Busan


Escorted by the military, refugees head south in hopes of finding a safe haven, carrying only basic possessions during the 1950-53 Korean War in this file photo. Busan, the nation’s southernmost city, was crowded with approximately a half million refugees on top of its existing population in early 1951. / Korea Times File

By Andrei Lankov

In the center of Busan, not far away from a railway station, one can come across a group of very life-like sculptures. These are depictions of badly dressed people of both sexes, working some strange-looking pieces of equipment, moving heavy loads or just laying down on the streets. This is how the Busan municipal government decided to commemorate the life of the city in the early 1950s when it was home to a large refugee population.

Busan, the nation's southernmost city, acted as the "provisional capital" for the almost entire length of the Korean War.

On July 27, 1950, the ROK parliament met there, soon to be followed by other government institutions.

In October 1950, after Seoul was retaken by the U.N. forces, the government returned there for a while. However, a communist
offensive in December 1950 made the South Korean government return to Busan and stay there until the cessation of hostilities.

In early 1951 Busan, the city with a pre-war population of some 882,000, was crowded with approximately half-a-million refugees.

A similar number found shelter in smaller cities along the southern coast, and so the total of refugees was estimated to be between four and six million.

While Busan is a relatively warm city (the air temperature seldom goes below the freezing point in winter), the refugees still had to be housed in permanent buildings.

The sudden arrival of such a large number of people put the local authorities in a difficult situation: all public buildings, including churches, school, industrial facilities, were emptied to serve as temporary shelters for the refugees. Still, a number of refugees froze to death in those winter months.

Busan had great difficulties in handling such a refugee population: Supplying the refugees' camps with drinkable water was a challenge, since the city's water supply system was designed in the 1930s to provide for the requirements of merely 300,000 inhabitants (the city's population in the 1930s).

To make things worse, this system, inadequate by 1950, had not been repaired for over a decade.

A large number of the able-bodied male refugees saw it as an employment opportunity and began to deliver water from distant pumps and wells to better-off houses, eateries and other places.

A water vendor, equipped with two large buckets, made of used oil drums, was a typical figure on the streets of war-time Busan.

The shortage of water also led to other dangers: Epidemics in crowded quarters were an ever present threat, and fires regularly devastated the refugees' camps.

Refugees who initially lived in tents and dugouts eventually began to establish more permanent shelters for themselves. They used any kind of material that was available.

By the end of the war, there were some 40,000 makeshift dwellings in Busan stitched together from corrugated iron, discarded planks and plywood.

The boxes for U.S. army rations provided one of the most common types of building material.

These houses were crowded to the extreme: Typically, a family of five-seven members lived in a dwelling of 10 square meters and greater densities were not unknown.

The refugees made their living by small commerce or by handicrafts, sometimes of very unconventional nature. Among other things, people gathered floating wood from the sea, dried it and then sold as firewood; collected old cans or drums and made them into pieces of metal which could be used for constructing the makeshift houses; gathered edible waste discarded near the military bases and used it to cook some dishes.

These dishes were sometimes called "U.N. stew," but more frequently were known as "kkulkkuli chuk," or "pigs' soup."

There were more conventional activities as well: People worked as porters and manual labourers of all kinds, ran food stalls and looked for jobs in still functioning industries. Jobs were difficult to come across, so every morning long queues grew in front of places where there was a chance of some casual work.

Employment at the U.S. military base was a dream for many, but it was quite difficult to secure.

It seems that violent crime and gangs, while present, did not constitute a serious problem in wartime cities, but petty theft became commonplace. (A popular saying in Seoul after the war was, "If you close your eyes, someone will steal your nose!")

People stole the cargo from passing trains, and the bravest risked their life in daring raids at the U.N. military facilities -- with pieces of coal or good metal being the major prizes. This was not easy, since the guards shot to kill and sometimes they did not miss. As one would expect, prostitution flourished in this environment, too.

Nonetheless, signs of the future could be seen amidst the dislocation and chaos. Schools continued to work, and among children of school age, nearly 70 percent attended primary school even in 1951, the most difficult of the war years.

Indeed, one of the most common memories of ordinary people from the war was the provisional schools, often operated under the open sky or inside a large army tent (when such a luxury was available).

Students sat on the ground while the teacher stood or sat in front of them.

The number of students in a "classroom" could be one hundred, with only one textbook for every five children. But they studied nonetheless, and their efforts were a sign of the post-war recovery, which is often described as a "miracle."

anlankov@yahoo.com