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2014-05-07 17:57
A mourner gives a big hug to one of the victimized family members of last month’s ferry Sewol disaster while visiting the memorial altar set up in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, Wednesday. Bereaved family members are currently staging a silent protest at the altar in request for a thorough investigation into the sinking of Sewol. / Korea Times photo by Hong In-ki

By Kim Da-ye



On May 3 when this reporter visited the joint altar in Ansan for the victims of the sunken ferry Sewol as a mourner, the families of the dead Danwon High School students began a protest, demanding every missing body be collected, and the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the causes of the accident.

In front of the temporary white tent, dozens of parents stood still, wearing white masks, a symbol for silence, and holding messages. “I want to know the truth so that my child smiles,” read one of them.

What the desperate families needed the least seemed to be the massive joint altar and some of the visitors who apparently had dropped by in casual clothes in the middle of a family outing.

The families of the Danwon High School victims released a joint statement that day, calling the memorial altars set up across the country a “funeral festival for the public.”

They said that they felt the government’s “sunshine measures” including the altars were a “big fraud.”

Parents of the victims distributed the statement to visitors waiting in a lengthy queue.

The joint altar was perfectly organized. Several volunteers stood between Choji Subway Station and Hwarang Park to guide visitors. Volunteers gave out water or energy drinks to people waiting in the long queue.

Inside the tent was a rather splendid altar adorned with thousands of flowers of different hues. A huge banner reading, “Ferry Sewol Accident Victim Government Joint Altar” hung above it. The same words were printed large on the façade of the tent.

People were asked to sign a visitors’ book and given a white chrysanthemum. They lined up again to wait their turn to lay the flower on the altar, pay a silent tribute, and walk along the altar. The brief ritual was repeated under a man’s military-like command.

I tried to observe each portrait as the families’ joint statement had stated: “Please remember every innocent face of our children.” The victims in the portraits were young.

A lady came and urged me to move faster because many were waiting.

As of May 5, some 360,000 have visited the altar in Ansan and more than 1.15 million across the country, according to the government’s tally.

I took a shuttle bus to Gojan Station on the way home.

The flawless organization of the altar and the efficiency there reminded me of how Korea is run.

Setting up the altar does not need manuals, principles or experiences, but a skill to package things nicely. And the government was good at it.

The difficult task will be searching for the missing, investigating the causes, punishing those culpable and fixing the whole system.

The government has already failed the most important of the challenges ― the rescue operation in the early stages of the accident.

The victims’ families are demanding the rest of the important tasks be done right.

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