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Sunday, 19 May 2013

Dark Memoirs of Gwangju Massacre, Part I: May 18th National Cemetery in Unjeong-dong, Gwangju Buk-gu

Yes, Alexandra. You have a right to blame two effing old geezers.

The May 18th National Cemetery (Hanja: 國立5·18民主墓地) in Unjeong-dong, Gwangju Buk-gu, which opened in 1997, contains a simple burial site for 325 civilian casualties of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. It is also known as the National Cemetery of Gwangju Massacre in Unjeong-dong. What the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre is to China, the 1980 Gwangju Massacre is to South Korea, a mass demonstration and protest against an authoritarian regime which led by President Chun Doo-hwan with deadly consequences that became an icon for its time. Ironically, Presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo masterminded this massacre.

Following large-scale student protests against military rule, on 18 May 1980 the army was ordered to move into Gwangju on the pretext of quelling a communist uprising. The soldiers had no bullets, but they used bayonets to murder dozens of unarmed protesters and passers-by. Outraged residents broke into armouries and police stations, and used the seized weapons and ammunition to drive the troops out of their city.

For over a week pro-democracy citizen groups were in control, but the brutal military response came nine days later on 27 May, when soldiers armed with loaded M16 rifles, supported by helicopters and tanks, retook the city. Most of the protest leaders were labelled 'communists' and summarily shot. At least 154 civilians were killed during the uprising, and an additional 4089 were wounded or arrested. Many of those arrested were tortured.

A small but emotionally charged museum shows photographs, and a hard-hitting video film gives a dramatic account of the traumatic events of over 25 years ago that still scar the country's political landscape. 'History which does not speak the truth and does not remember the past is bound to be repeated' is the message.

On the right a memorial hall displays photographs of the ordinary folk, from middle-school students to grandmothers, who paid the ultimate price during the military government's so-called 'crackdown on communists'.

A five-minute walk through the memorial garden leads to the reinstated original cemetery, where the victims were first hurriedly buried without proper ceremony. Later the bodies were dug up from the Cemetery of Gwangju Massacre at MangWol-dong in the same district and re-interred in the new cemetery in Unjeong-dong.

Bus 518 (around ₩900, 20 minutes, every 30 minutes) drops you off at the cemetery entrance, and can be picked up at the Gwangju Hospital stop, near the large Home Plus store, or along Geumnamno. Bus 311 (around ₩900, 15 minutes, every 15 minutes) runs from the bus terminal to Gwangju hospital.