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“On the Bank of Tuman” By Mani Lohani

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‘Behold! That is North Korea – the land where our friends were taken captive,’ said Lara, when we reached the bank of Tuman, the river along the border between China and North Korea. Lara is an American. For quite a long time, she has been working for an international organization for human rights. At present too, she is involved in the same, at the border between China and South Korea.

It was on the Bank of Tuman that the North Korean police arrested Laura Ling and Yuna Lee — two American journalists reporting on human right violation. Though the two – enduring through imprisonment in North Korea – have repeatedly claimed that they had taken photographs from the Chinese territory, no hearing was staged in their petition. Instead, the Pyongyang Court declared them guilty, and remanded them to a twelve-year sentence in a rigorous labour camp. The declaration mentioned that the two had illegally intruded into the North Korean territory, and had done proscribed works.

The incident generated a type of sensation among journalists, world over. It was an unfortunate attack on the universal right to free press and unimpeded news collection. The journalists duo – Ling and Lee – were carrying out researches on the manhandling of North Korean women by human traffickers.

Three months after this declaration by Pyongyang Court, an American organization took a team of South Asian journalists to Tuman bank. I was a member of the team that had journalists from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal. With me was camera man Ashok Silwal.

Tuman – deep green, attractive and cold –flowed in a hilly gorge separating China and North Korea. But the difficult topography made the security arrangements rather weak.

We had no permission to enter North Korea. Ujma, a journalist of Pakistani Television ‘Geo’ and I reached the farthest edge of the bridge in between, and took photographs. We were startled by the reflection that we had almost touched North Korean frontier. What could Ling and Lee be doing in the labour camp right now? We rushed back to the other bank of Tuman.

‘This river bank entices us,’ said Jing Lee Sun. ‘At this corner of North Korea, we have nothing save hardship and scarcity. China is a dreamland for us. It has both work and money. For that, we hurry up to cross Tuman even before our youth wanes.’

‘Avarice and haste have almost drowned us on Tuman bank.’ Jing was almost in tears. She went on, ‘We don’t have with us our life anymore.’ This woman, introduced to us by Lara, happened to be rescued by Lara’s organisation itself.

Initially, I did not believe Jing. I doubted whether it was not like the case in Kathmandu where human right organizations train women and children to weep and talk, and force tides in their favour.  But when I saw a cold sketch on Jing’s eyes, I believed. No matter how hard one tries to subdue hardship, it manifests on the edge of the two tiny eyes. It is impossible to conceal the existent hardship within eyes, and to manifest non-existent hardship on the eyes.

This woman, still in her twenties, crossed the border illegally and entered China from North Korea in 2002. She reported that many women like her had illegally been sneaking into China since the nineties. They were, in fact forced to leave North Korea for want of food, medicine and fuel.

‘After crossing Tuman, we reached a Chinese home,’ Jing recalled moments of their entry. ‘The family welcomed us. The reception made me hopeful that I would get work, and I was happy.’

To her dismay, however, the Chinese family handed Jing over to human traffickers. They sold her to a Chinese farmer for a big wad of money. Against her will, Jing was formed to marry the Chinese farmer.

‘My Chinese husband is fifteen years olden than me. One of his legs was imbecile. Since than, I have been his maid. He would beat me if ever I declined his orders.’ Jing’s lips, as think as rose petals, quivered frantically.

Lara informed that tens of thousand of North Koreans, who fled their land due to domestic violence and poverty, had the same destiny like that of Jing. According to her, women on their own sneaked into China, and then got captured. Chinese traffickers too would enter North Korea, and in collaboration with their Korean accomplices, trap girls. They would hoodwink parents by lame assurances, ‘We have a lucrative job for your daughters in the village across the border. She will earn handsomely, and send home money.’

I am an ordinary journalist of a nation battered by women trafficking. I am stunned by the woes of women trafficked in developed and powerful countries.

What is wrong in being a woman? Why is there such a stunning similarity in women’s plight, all over the world? Are women, after all, epitomes of pain? O God, why is there so much of violence upon women? Why are pains and woes of women in Nepal, India, Pakistan, Tuman bank or any other land for that matter, the same?

Lara, who had been working for four years at the border between China and North Korea assisting women traumatized by this slavery of the modern age, said, ‘It’s like a shopkeeper showcasing stuffs in his shop. Women are arranged in a row. Age is a criterion. When embellished in seductive make-up and new clothes, customers come and haggle on prices. One who tenders the highest sum gets the woman of his choice. Those women are first rapped by the traffickers. Thereafter, they are made life-long slaves of the buyers.’

‘Won’t you return to North Korea?’ I asked Jing.

‘We have reached here crossing Tuman with difficulty. Here, we have nothing save hardship. Why should we return with mere hardship at our disposal? We would rather die here,’ she said, wiping her eyes. She whispered to herself in her own language, ‘salyajunungo Anna salyajunungoyo mugressonikan.’

‘What does it mean?’ I asked Lara.

‘It’s Jing’s accustomed adage. If she ever has to talk of her life, she used the same. This Korean lisp of hers means – we are unaware whether we are dead, or alive.’

What a philosophical reply! Perhaps, pain drives people to the proximity of philosophy. I felt that I had heard the sentence earlier somewhere. I tried to recall. I was sure I had heard it in Korean lisp from a Korean girl!

‘Jing, have you ever been to Nepal?’

‘Are you a Nepali?’ she asked me.

In her tone, I could recognize her, as a story of our past mysteriously unfolds. I continued, ‘I am a Nepali, Jing. Do you remember Rapti bank, and the birds flying over it? One serene evening, the birds had brought to you the memory of your Wang.’

This meeting with Jing enraptures me. What a coincidence?

‘Your Wang – the one who searched a job for you in the company! Your dreams to get richer! I remember everything, Jing!’

Jing quivers, frantically.

‘Are you the one with long hair that danced with me?’ she screamed in simultaneous air of fear and delight.

It must be a time some seven years earlier from today. We have danced together one evening on Rapti bank. She had just graduated from her high school then. She had been selected by the school for Nepal tour.

She had loved the T-shirt with map of Nepal, kept for sale at Sauraha. When I suggested her to buy it, she had replied in a faint voice, ‘I have no money.’

‘Why?’ I had asked.

‘I am the daughter of a poor Korean peasant from the state bordering China. I have no money. I was good at school, and I was opportune to come hither.’

We had had good introduction and acquaintance the previous evening. Together, we had danced as well. However, at present, she did not have even the trace of the romantic fervour she exhibited then. She looked rather emotional and spent. Her accent bore a tinge of hesitation.

‘In the course of living, we are exchanging life for poverty at Tuman bank.’ She was speaking to herself, ‘Salyajunungo Anna salyajunungoyo mugressonikan.’  I had immediately asked her its meaning. The Korean sentence happened to have a meaning something like this: ‘We are unaware, whether we are dead or alive.’

‘I will get richer within a few months.’ A glow had appeared on her countenance. ‘I am marrying Wang Lee soon. I am migrating to Jonchung. There, he has arranged for me a job in the company he works for.’

Thereafter, I had bought three t-shirts of her choice – one for her, one for Chang, and one for the little one they would beget some years later. Clenching both of my hands, she had said, ‘Khamsamida!’ That was a word of thanks. When the Koreans have to thank their beloved ones, they happen to fold both the hands and say, ‘Khamsamida!’

‘I had never hoped I would meet you here,’ said Jing, as tears flowed out of her eyes. ‘All the three t-shits you bought for me are unused. No one has used them hitherto.’

‘Didn’t you marry Wang?’

Jing wept for a long time. When she was done, she revealed so many things.

When hardships come in people’s life, they come together in a row. The terrible landslide that battered Jonchung in late 2001 happened to wash away hundreds of homes including the factory Wang worked for. And the same devastation happened to sweep away Wang Lee – her lover. With it happened to flow, Jings’s dreams and desires!

With the painful memory of this apocalyptic landslide, she had entered China in 2002, seeking for work and food.

After quite a long, long time, she appeared cool and natural. In the evening we sipped coffee together on Tuman bank. She came close to me and said, ‘Where is your long hair, Mani?’

‘Age forsook it all, Jing!’ I said, gazing at the birds, flying in the sky above Tuman.

It was only then that she discharged a light laughter.

But the laughter on her face did not last long.

(Translation of Mani Lohani’ Nepali story “Tuman Nadiko Kinarma”, Translator: Mahesh Paudyal )

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