A refuge to ease the pains of war

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PERCHED IN the the low hills and rice paddies of the village of Twae Chon, an hour and half's drive from the tumult of central Seoul, Nanumui Jib would be a tranquil place for anyone to live out their last years. Its name means the "House of Sharing" and here, tended by four full-time helpers and a stream of willing young volunteers, live seven Korean women between the ages of 73 and 85.

For most of the week they live quietly - writing, reading and chatting in the bungalows specially built for them around a paved courtyard. Several of the women are skilled artists, and on most days they receive visitors, who are escorted around their small museum. But once a week the routine is interrupted.

Every Wednesday, without fail, they drive to Seoul to gather in front of the Japanese embassy. And there, accompanied by other equally frail old women, they chant, shout and weep at the sufferings of the past and the continuing injustice of the present.

The House of Sharing may look idyllic but it is a retirement home like no other, a place where the agony of the Second World War is kept vividly alive. Its residents are all former "comfort women", the bitterly ironic euphemism employed by the Japanese Imperial Army for the hundreds of thousands of women it rounded up and forced to work as prostitutes in frontline military brothels.

The "comfort stations" where they were enslaved were set up in every corner of the territory conquered by Japan; the comfort women included Filipinas, Chinese, Indonesians, Thais and Cambo- dians. But four out of five of them were Korean, and it is in Korea that their sufferings are best remembered and their cause most actively pursued.

Typical among them is Kim Soon Duk, who was taken from her mountain village in 1937 at the age of 17. Korea had been a Japanese colony for 27 years, and the Imperial Army was spreading its tentacles through China. "The military came round to each house and demanded that they provide one young girl each," she says. "It was just as if a war had broken out and they were enlisting young men to join up." The girls were told they would be working as nurses or sewing uniforms in military factories.

The dreadful truth only became clear when it was too late, after Miss Kim's arrival in Shanghai. "I saw so many soldiers and these shoddy tents where we had to work. I cried and cried for so many nights, I don't know how many nights I cried. Some of the friends who came with me took their own lives."

Estimates of the total numbers of comfort women vary between 80,000 and 300,000, and, for those who survived, the sufferings did not end with the war. Many found themselves stranded in obscure corners of Asia with no means of returning home.

Those who did make it returned to a deeply conservative culture in which their violation was a source of shame rather than pity. "We didn't open our mouths out of shame," says Miss Kim. It wasn't until 1991 that a Korean comfort woman talked openly about her enslavement, but since then it has become the most bitter single issue in the always touchy relationship between South Korea and Japan. It is likely to flare again next month when Kim Dae Jung makes his first visit to Tokyo as South Korean president - during their weekly demonstrations, the comfort women have been pressing him to raise their cause with the Japanese Prime Minister, Keizo Obuchi. The Japanese government has acknowledged the existence of wartime sex slaves and last year 3 million yen (pounds 13,000) was offered to the survivors, with a letter of apology from Ryutaro Hashi- moto, then prime minister.

But Tokyo has insistently refused to pay any compensation as a government - the money on offer was provided by private companies and only a handful of comfort women have accepted it.

Out of the multitude of comfort women, only 185 Koreans have stepped forward to announce themselves publicly, and more than 30 of those have since died. Apart from everything else, this is what makes the House of Sharing a unique old people's home. In the next 10 or 20 years, it will run out of residents.