Travels, Uncategorized

Losing and Finding Love in the Time of Boko Haram

img_9684

Since the Boko Haram insurgency began in 2011, thousands of women and children have been abducted by the terror group. Many of the women recovered from the forests and villages in which they were forcefully held face challenges being accepted into their communities. Here is a story of a couple separated by Boko Haram and how they found each other again

 

Gunshots echoed and explosions rang out across Bama, the town in Borno State that had come under sporadic attacks from the Boko Haram in the last few months. But the echoes of the explosion this time were ominous. They were those of an occupation force intent on taking full control of the town.
They shot the men and rounded up the women and children. Among them was Maryam Zanna, who was in her early 30s, and her little daughter. They had gone to braid their hair when the attackers came calling.

The women were loaded onto trucks by their captors and driven away. And as Maryam looked back at the burning remains of her hometown, she thought her husband, Zanna Bukar Tombe and the little son she had left at home had been killed.
“I thought I would never see them again,” she said now in Kanuri, sitting on a plastic mat on the floor of her tarpaulin shelter in the Dalori Camp for displaced persons in the outskirts of Maiduguri.
There wasn’t much in the room, just lots of colourful mats, a clothesline on which her clothes, her sons, and some blankets were hung. Behind her, there was a flimsy mattress pushed back against the tarpaulin wall.
There was nothing comfortable here, but it must have been like heaven compared to what she went through when Boko Haram took her and the other women of Bama. They were driven to a village, split into groups and imprisoned in different houses.
Maryam’s good fortune was that among the insurgents, there was one she knew, someone from their neighbourhood in Bama. He recognised her and ensured she was put in a select group of women that enjoyed some level of protection from abuse.
“The ones they maltreat are mostly the ones they caught migrating from their villages on their way to Maiduguri,” she said. “We were kept in a house and were asked to cook for them.”
Eventually, one of the militants set his eyes on Maryam and decided he wanted to take her as a wife. She told them she had a husband already. But deep down, she wasn’t sure her husband was alive. Whether he was or not would have mattered very little to her captors. Maryam’s case was helped by the familiar insurgent.
“It was him who told them to leave me alone,” she said.
And they did. For the six months she was in captivity, cooking food for them and being forced to attend sermons and preaching by Boko Haram commanders. But then one night, the familiar insurgent returned with some urgent news.
“He said they have made plans to marry all the young, unmarried girls and shoot the married ones and those who refused to marry them.”
He helped her with her daughter and two other women to scale the fence of their prison and set off on foot into the wild, running until they could run no longer. So they kept walking in the forest for hours.
But dreams of escape were short lived. The escapees were soon rounded up by another group of Boko Haram insurgents on patrol and were taken to a different camp. There, she was put in another house and locked up alongside other women.
About a month later, soldiers stormed the camp and freed them.
The soldiers drove Maryam and the other women to her hometown, Bama, which at that time had just been recovered by the army and was practically in ruins. They were kept there for a month and questioned by the soldiers. After being screened, a process that took all of one month, Maryam and the other women and children were put into buses and transported to Maiduguri, some 72km away, to the Dalori Camp. As the convoy made its way to the relative safety of Maiduguri, Maryam had no idea what to expect at the camp, but one thing she was sure of was that it would be better than where she had been the last seven months.
As the vehicles arrived the gates of Dalori, Maryam peered out the window to catch glimpses of her new home, the faces that would become her neighbours. But there, among the men guarding the gate, she saw a familiar face, one she thought she would never see again. It was her husband, Zanna.
“When I saw him, my mind was instantly at peace,” she said. She broke down and shed tears of joy as the vehicles drove into the camp.

 

Maryam Zanna in the tent she now calls hom

Maryam Zanna in the tent she now calls home

Escape from Death
Zanna Bukar Tombe, 44, sat on a bench inside the yellow United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) tent at the Dalori Camp. The sunlight seeping through the yellow tarpaulin cast an eerie glow on his face and everything else in the tent. Behind him, there was a poster advertising “Rape is a Crime.”
While he spoke, Zanna kept his head down, massaging his feet all the time. He was now a member of the Civilian Joint Task Force (JTF) and was part of the group that helps provide security at the Dalori camp.
When Boko Haram attacked Bama, Zanna took his two-year-old son and fled. He was caught off by the insurgents and couldn’t go back for his wife and daughter as Boko Haram was shooting every man they set their eyes on.
It was sad for him to leave Bama, where he had his family, where he had his own house and two cars he used to transport goods from Bama to Maiduguri, 72 km away. And this time, when he made this trip, it was to escape the Boko Haram rampage and deliver his life and that of his son to safety.
For the first two months after the attack, he had no idea where his wife and daughter were.
“I was anxious to see her, to hear news of her and my son because I didn’t know if they were dead or alive,” he said.
Tired of idling away and feeling useless at the camp, he decided to join the Civilian JTF and contribute to the fight against Boko Haram. Patrolling the streets of Maiduguri and helping to secure the city felt far more useful than languishing in the camp.
He didn’t hear any news of his wife and daughter until after two months, when one of his relatives who had been taken along with Maryam somehow managed to escape from Boko Haram and trekked 34 km to Konduga before she was brought toDalori.
The news should have pleased him, but instead Zanna became more anxious.
“When I heard she was alive I was worried because I thought that perhaps the way we were treating Boko Haram suspects here, tying them up and beating them up, was the way they were treating our own families they are holding,” he said.
But beyond this fear, there was a bigger one lurking in his mind. “I had heard that the Boko Haram boys mostly were infected with HIV and they were fond of raping women, young or old.”
This fear impacted so deeply in Zanna that he worried in what state his wife would return, if she ever returned at all.
With no further news of his wife for months, and with a child who needed caring for, Zanna decided to marry a second wife, a fellow IDP at the camp. Plans for the wedding had advanced when one day, while on duty at the gate, Zanna caught glimpse of his wife Maryam being driven into the camp.

Awkward reunion
With the excitement of the reunion over, reality slowly crept in on the couple. Maryam soon learnt that Zanna had plans to marry another wife.
“I didn’t feel awkward that he was getting married because I wasn’t expecting to see him again,” she said, smiling bashfully. Maryam smiled a lot but when asked if she missed her husband while in captivity, she got really emotional and barely restrained herself from crying. When she spoke after that, her voice was softer, tremulous even. It was easy to see how much her husband meant to her.
But the one time she didn’t hold back her tears was when after her return, Zanna had come to see her.
Zanna narrated that encounter.
“When she returned and I went to see her, she joked that she had heard I was going to get married. I laughed and said, well, it was because I had heard that a Boko Haram Ameer [leader] had married her. She broke down and started crying,” he said looking down at his feet as if he still remembered the anguish those words caused her. He had placated her then, telling her he only meant it as a joke.
“I told her that I had only heard she was cooking for the bastards,” he said, almost apologetically.
Maryam was eventually pacified, but they both knew that a really awkward wedge had been driven between them.
Maryam hadn’t returned in the best of conditions and Zanna described how he had seen her then in sympathetic and affectionate tones. She had rashes all over her face, she was lean and her hair was browning because of poor diet.
Much as he cared,Zanna was reluctant for their lives to resume as normal. He was simply finding it hard to take her back as his wife. He felt she had been tainted by the Boko Haram.

The tainted “Boko Haram Wives”
The many women who had been abducted by the Boko Haram and managed to escape or were rescued have had to contend with the challenges of stigmatization. Some are rejected by their husbands who are reluctant to take them back.
This is such a widespread problem that Non-Governmental organisations like Herwa Community Initiative in Maiduguri have taken it upon themselves to organise mediation sessions between the rescued people who they call “survivors” and they relatives or host communities.
“There are many cases,” Alh. Muhammad Alhassan, the Executive Director of Herwa said. “From time to time we have mediation sessions in the camps, in the host communities and bring the survivors and the people together.”
“No one wants to be abducted by Boko Haram, and when this happens, they are massively traumatised and people need to know that these survivors need understanding and support.”
They use religious scholars and logic to persuade people to accept their relatives and neighbours who have been freed from the clutches of Boko Haram. They have succeeded with several cases, but they have also had failures as well.
“There is a man, a religious scholar for that matter, who one would expect would encourage people to take back their wives, but this man swore he would never have anything to do with his wife who had been recovered from Boko Haram. We are still working on that case,” he said.
William Ubimago, the Programme Officer of Herwa, is one of the officers at the forefront of the outreach programmes, providing counselling and skill acquisition training for the survivors. He was very passionate about the Zanna and Maryam case.
“There are many things that people take into consideration, some are social, some feel it is a matter of pride and others feel that they can no longer take back women they think might have been used by Boko Haram, but they tend to forget that these people were forced at gunpoint and if they had been in a similar situation, they would have done the same,” he said.
“When we bring people together and have mediated discussions with all parties involved, we are able to open channels of communications some of them have decided to block,” he added.
That was not dissimilar to what transpired between Zanna and his wife Maryam. When Maryam was still in the den of her captors Zanna developed a closed mind.
“I wasn’t even talking to her father then,” Zanna said. “I avoided him.”
And when Maryam was recovered, even though he genuinely had sympathy for her, he said his fears kept him from taking her back.
“I was afraid,” he said, “I was worried she might have been infected with HIV. If she had, I wouldn’t have rejected her outrightly. I would have taken care of her, even if for nothing but for the sake of our son. I would take her to get her ARVs and all that. But I won’t be intimate with her. I won’t let her fall into neglect and end up in a bad state.”
Even if she had been forcibly married to them, he insisted he would care for her. “There are women who are recovered and were impregnated by Boko Haram and we [Civilian JTF] have been bringing them back and giving them the attention they need. I would have taken care of her and the baby but there won’t be any intimacy between us,” he said.
But fortunately, nothing like that happened with his wife. But when she told him she had not been married to her captors nor had she been violated by them, he was still sceptical.
He was unconvinced and asked her to swear by the Qur’an.
“My uncle said that wasn’t necessary,” Maryam said, “He said I didn’t need to swear because even if anything had happened, it was because I was compelled and Islam does not judge people who have been forced to do things and humans shouldn’t either.”
Zanna acknowledged the role of her uncle in the whole saga. He said the uncle who happened to be a religious scholar had spoken to him at length and convinced him of the folly of his belief.
“I was ignorant,” Zanna said, looking down at his foot on the bench. “I was really ignorant but I was made to realise my mistake and now I feel sorry.”
Finally convinced about his misguided stance, Zanna agreed to take back his wife. They went to a military clinic where they were both tested for HIV and other infections. With the results coming back negative, the road was clear for a proper reunion and renewal of marriage vows.
“When he said he was going to take me back, I was happy because rarely do men take back their wives when they have been abducted by those people,” Maryam said, smiling.
Zanna too was pleased with this development.
“Her uncle told me since I was going to take her back, I should give her something valuable to show her that I really appreciated her and I was happy to take her back,” he said. So he handed her the things he had bought for the new wife he had planned to take.
A year has passed since their reunion.
Living in the dreariness of the camp and waiting for handouts from government and international and local agencies, the couple still glowed with happiness. It was evident in the way they looked at each other and smiled. In the affectionate tone they talked about each other. And in the regret in Zanna’s eyes when he spoke of how he thought of rejecting his wife.
“They are the poster couple of our reunion efforts,” William of Herwa said proudly. “They are our reference point and make all the effort worth it.”
The only blemish to this story was the death of their first daughter, months after their rescue from the Boko Haram. The little girl died of measles. It was something that Maryam thinks about a lot. But regarding her ordeal in the hands of her captors, she was eager to put that behind her.
“I don’t think of them at all,” she said,“I don’t think of them since I have my son and my husband. My only regret is the daughter I lost.”

Maryam and Zanna living happily in their tent

Maryam and Zanna living happily in their tent

By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim | First published in Daily Trust, Sep 4 2016

Standard
Travels, Uncategorized

Losing and finding love in the time of Boko Haram

img_9684

Since the Boko Haram insurgency began in 2011, thousands of women and children have been abducted by the terror group. Many of the women recovered from the forests and villages in which they were forcefully held face challenges being accepted into their communities. Here is a story of a couple separated by Boko Haram and how they found each other again

 

Gunshots echoed and explosions rang out across Bama, the town in Borno State that had come under sporadic attacks from the Boko Haram in the last few months. But the echoes of the explosion this time were ominous. They were those of an occupation force intent on taking full control of the town.
They shot the men and rounded up the women and children. Among them was Maryam Zanna, who was in her early 30s, and her little daughter. They had gone to braid their hair when the attackers came calling.

The women were loaded onto trucks by their captors and driven away. And as Maryam looked back at the burning remains of her hometown, she thought her husband, Zanna Bukar Tombe and the little son she had left at home had been killed.
“I thought I would never see them again,” she said now in Kanuri, sitting on a plastic mat on the floor of her tarpaulin shelter in the Dalori Camp for displaced persons in the outskirts of Maiduguri.
There wasn’t much in the room, just lots of colourful mats, a clothesline on which her clothes, her sons, and some blankets were hung. Behind her, there was a flimsy mattress pushed back against the tarpaulin wall.
There was nothing comfortable here, but it must have been like heaven compared to what she went through when Boko Haram took her and the other women of Bama. They were driven to a village, split into groups and imprisoned in different houses.
Maryam’s good fortune was that among the insurgents, there was one she knew, someone from their neighbourhood in Bama. He recognised her and ensured she was put in a select group of women that enjoyed some level of protection from abuse.
“The ones they maltreat are mostly the ones they caught migrating from their villages on their way to Maiduguri,” she said. “We were kept in a house and were asked to cook for them.”
Eventually, one of the militants set his eyes on Maryam and decided he wanted to take her as a wife. She told them she had a husband already. But deep down, she wasn’t sure her husband was alive. Whether he was or not would have mattered very little to her captors. Maryam’s case was helped by the familiar insurgent.
“It was him who told them to leave me alone,” she said.
And they did. For the six months she was in captivity, cooking food for them and being forced to attend sermons and preaching by Boko Haram commanders. But then one night, the familiar insurgent returned with some urgent news.
“He said they have made plans to marry all the young, unmarried girls and shoot the married ones and those who refused to marry them.”
He helped her with her daughter and two other women to scale the fence of their prison and set off on foot into the wild, running until they could run no longer. So they kept walking in the forest for hours.
But dreams of escape were short lived. The escapees were soon rounded up by another group of Boko Haram insurgents on patrol and were taken to a different camp. There, she was put in another house and locked up alongside other women.
About a month later, soldiers stormed the camp and freed them.
The soldiers drove Maryam and the other women to her hometown, Bama, which at that time had just been recovered by the army and was practically in ruins. They were kept there for a month and questioned by the soldiers. After being screened, a process that took all of one month, Maryam and the other women and children were put into buses and transported to Maiduguri, some 72km away, to the Dalori Camp. As the convoy made its way to the relative safety of Maiduguri, Maryam had no idea what to expect at the camp, but one thing she was sure of was that it would be better than where she had been the last seven months.
As the vehicles arrived the gates of Dalori, Maryam peered out the window to catch glimpses of her new home, the faces that would become her neighbours. But there, among the men guarding the gate, she saw a familiar face, one she thought she would never see again. It was her husband, Zanna.
“When I saw him, my mind was instantly at peace,” she said. She broke down and shed tears of joy as the vehicles drove into the camp.

 

Maryam Zanna in the tent she now calls hom

Maryam Zanna in the tent she now calls home

Escape from Death
Zanna Bukar Tombe, 44, sat on a bench inside the yellow United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) tent at the Dalori Camp. The sunlight seeping through the yellow tarpaulin cast an eerie glow on his face and everything else in the tent. Behind him, there was a poster advertising “Rape is a Crime.”
While he spoke, Zanna kept his head down, massaging his feet all the time. He was now a member of the Civilian Joint Task Force (JTF) and was part of the group that helps provide security at the Dalori camp.
When Boko Haram attacked Bama, Zanna took his two-year-old son and fled. He was caught off by the insurgents and couldn’t go back for his wife and daughter as Boko Haram was shooting every man they set their eyes on.
It was sad for him to leave Bama, where he had his family, where he had his own house and two cars he used to transport goods from Bama to Maiduguri, 72 km away. And this time, when he made this trip, it was to escape the Boko Haram rampage and deliver his life and that of his son to safety.
For the first two months after the attack, he had no idea where his wife and daughter were.
“I was anxious to see her, to hear news of her and my son because I didn’t know if they were dead or alive,” he said.
Tired of idling away and feeling useless at the camp, he decided to join the Civilian JTF and contribute to the fight against Boko Haram. Patrolling the streets of Maiduguri and helping to secure the city felt far more useful than languishing in the camp.
He didn’t hear any news of his wife and daughter until after two months, when one of his relatives who had been taken along with Maryam somehow managed to escape from Boko Haram and trekked 34 km to Konduga before she was brought toDalori.
The news should have pleased him, but instead Zanna became more anxious.
“When I heard she was alive I was worried because I thought that perhaps the way we were treating Boko Haram suspects here, tying them up and beating them up, was the way they were treating our own families they are holding,” he said.
But beyond this fear, there was a bigger one lurking in his mind. “I had heard that the Boko Haram boys mostly were infected with HIV and they were fond of raping women, young or old.”
This fear impacted so deeply in Zanna that he worried in what state his wife would return, if she ever returned at all.
With no further news of his wife for months, and with a child who needed caring for, Zanna decided to marry a second wife, a fellow IDP at the camp. Plans for the wedding had advanced when one day, while on duty at the gate, Zanna caught glimpse of his wife Maryam being driven into the camp.

Awkward reunion
With the excitement of the reunion over, reality slowly crept in on the couple. Maryam soon learnt that Zanna had plans to marry another wife.
“I didn’t feel awkward that he was getting married because I wasn’t expecting to see him again,” she said, smiling bashfully. Maryam smiled a lot but when asked if she missed her husband while in captivity, she got really emotional and barely restrained herself from crying. When she spoke after that, her voice was softer, tremulous even. It was easy to see how much her husband meant to her.
But the one time she didn’t hold back her tears was when after her return, Zanna had come to see her.
Zanna narrated that encounter.
“When she returned and I went to see her, she joked that she had heard I was going to get married. I laughed and said, well, it was because I had heard that a Boko Haram Ameer [leader] had married her. She broke down and started crying,” he said looking down at his feet as if he still remembered the anguish those words caused her. He had placated her then, telling her he only meant it as a joke.
“I told her that I had only heard she was cooking for the bastards,” he said, almost apologetically.
Maryam was eventually pacified, but they both knew that a really awkward wedge had been driven between them.
Maryam hadn’t returned in the best of conditions and Zanna described how he had seen her then in sympathetic and affectionate tones. She had rashes all over her face, she was lean and her hair was browning because of poor diet.
Much as he cared,Zanna was reluctant for their lives to resume as normal. He was simply finding it hard to take her back as his wife. He felt she had been tainted by the Boko Haram.

The tainted “Boko Haram Wives”
The many women who had been abducted by the Boko Haram and managed to escape or were rescued have had to contend with the challenges of stigmatization. Some are rejected by their husbands who are reluctant to take them back.
This is such a widespread problem that Non-Governmental organisations like Herwa Community Initiative in Maiduguri have taken it upon themselves to organise mediation sessions between the rescued people who they call “survivors” and they relatives or host communities.
“There are many cases,” Alh. Muhammad Alhassan, the Executive Director of Herwa said. “From time to time we have mediation sessions in the camps, in the host communities and bring the survivors and the people together.”
“No one wants to be abducted by Boko Haram, and when this happens, they are massively traumatised and people need to know that these survivors need understanding and support.”
They use religious scholars and logic to persuade people to accept their relatives and neighbours who have been freed from the clutches of Boko Haram. They have succeeded with several cases, but they have also had failures as well.
“There is a man, a religious scholar for that matter, who one would expect would encourage people to take back their wives, but this man swore he would never have anything to do with his wife who had been recovered from Boko Haram. We are still working on that case,” he said.
William Ubimago, the Programme Officer of Herwa, is one of the officers at the forefront of the outreach programmes, providing counselling and skill acquisition training for the survivors. He was very passionate about the Zanna and Maryam case.
“There are many things that people take into consideration, some are social, some feel it is a matter of pride and others feel that they can no longer take back women they think might have been used by Boko Haram, but they tend to forget that these people were forced at gunpoint and if they had been in a similar situation, they would have done the same,” he said.
“When we bring people together and have mediated discussions with all parties involved, we are able to open channels of communications some of them have decided to block,” he added.
That was not dissimilar to what transpired between Zanna and his wife Maryam. When Maryam was still in the den of her captors Zanna developed a closed mind.
“I wasn’t even talking to her father then,” Zanna said. “I avoided him.”
And when Maryam was recovered, even though he genuinely had sympathy for her, he said his fears kept him from taking her back.
“I was afraid,” he said, “I was worried she might have been infected with HIV. If she had, I wouldn’t have rejected her outrightly. I would have taken care of her, even if for nothing but for the sake of our son. I would take her to get her ARVs and all that. But I won’t be intimate with her. I won’t let her fall into neglect and end up in a bad state.”
Even if she had been forcibly married to them, he insisted he would care for her. “There are women who are recovered and were impregnated by Boko Haram and we [Civilian JTF] have been bringing them back and giving them the attention they need. I would have taken care of her and the baby but there won’t be any intimacy between us,” he said.
But fortunately, nothing like that happened with his wife. But when she told him she had not been married to her captors nor had she been violated by them, he was still sceptical.
He was unconvinced and asked her to swear by the Qur’an.
“My uncle said that wasn’t necessary,” Maryam said, “He said I didn’t need to swear because even if anything had happened, it was because I was compelled and Islam does not judge people who have been forced to do things and humans shouldn’t either.”
Zanna acknowledged the role of her uncle in the whole saga. He said the uncle who happened to be a religious scholar had spoken to him at length and convinced him of the folly of his belief.
“I was ignorant,” Zanna said, looking down at his foot on the bench. “I was really ignorant but I was made to realise my mistake and now I feel sorry.”
Finally convinced about his misguided stance, Zanna agreed to take back his wife. They went to a military clinic where they were both tested for HIV and other infections. With the results coming back negative, the road was clear for a proper reunion and renewal of marriage vows.
“When he said he was going to take me back, I was happy because rarely do men take back their wives when they have been abducted by those people,” Maryam said, smiling.
Zanna too was pleased with this development.
“Her uncle told me since I was going to take her back, I should give her something valuable to show her that I really appreciated her and I was happy to take her back,” he said. So he handed her the things he had bought for the new wife he had planned to take.
A year has passed since their reunion.
Living in the dreariness of the camp and waiting for handouts from government and international and local agencies, the couple still glowed with happiness. It was evident in the way they looked at each other and smiled. In the affectionate tone they talked about each other. And in the regret in Zanna’s eyes when he spoke of how he thought of rejecting his wife.
“They are the poster couple of our reunion efforts,” William of Herwa said proudly. “They are our reference point and make all the effort worth it.”
The only blemish to this story was the death of their first daughter, months after their rescue from the Boko Haram. The little girl died of measles. It was something that Maryam thinks about a lot. But regarding her ordeal in the hands of her captors, she was eager to put that behind her.
“I don’t think of them at all,” she said,“I don’t think of them since I have my son and my husband. My only regret is the daughter I lost.”

Maryam and Zanna living happily in their tent

Maryam and Zanna living happily in their tent

By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim | First published in Daily Trust, Sep 4 2016

Standard
Travels, Uncategorized

Hahoe: The ancient village where Korea’s essence is preserved

The abode of the goddess. This tree is 600 years old and is at the centre of Hahoe. The white strips sorrounding it are prayers stuck up by people.

In South Korea for the Journalists Forum for World Peace,I visited the historical village of Hahoe, in Andong Province, which is 500 years old and has been preserved in its original state. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and draws in thousands of tourists yearly who come to explore the sites and the spiritual connotations at the heart of this village.

There are wooden gods scattered here. Faces carved into logs that have been erected at the entrance of the historical village of Hahoe, which is reputed to be some 500 years old. These gods in ruins are the ancestral deities charged with the task of protecting this little farming and fishing village. A responsibility they have been saddled with since the village was established in the 16th century Joseon Dynasty.
Going by this, it becomes clear that Hahoe was established, and has been preserved, with the Korean essence of spirituality and discipline at heart. And it was here that some famous Koreans were born; brothers Ryu Unryong and Ryu Sengryong being the most well-known. The former was a great Confucian scholar of the Joseon Dynasty and has the honour of being represented on a Korean banknote, while the latter was the prime minister during the Japanese invasion of 1592 to 1598.
How Hahoe survived the times, and especially Korea’s 1970s housing whirlwind that saw the government bulldozing most villages and replacing them with urban sky-rises, constructs that are now drab-looking 1970s architecture, is something muted in conversations.
Koreans owe this to a descendant of the famous Ryu clan, who established the village. The businessman, who happened to be a powerful arms manufacturer in the 1970s and enjoyed the confidence of the Korean president at the time was said to have persuaded the president to spare Hahoe from mordernisation. He made a convincing argument and the president struck Hahoe off the list of villages to be demolished.
Four decades later, in 2010, Hahoe, with its straw and tile roof structures in traditional Korean architecture was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Cultural Heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
With Mount Hwa hedging the village from the east, and the River Nakdong curling around it like a snoozing serpent in the shape of the letter S, Hahoe (which translates as River Bend or River Meander) is thought to be a good place to live. These geographic features have led to connotations that Hahoe looks like the yin-yang on the Korean national flag – a statement that carries some spiritual potency. It has also been suggested that the village, cradled between the river and the mountain, looks like a lotus flower floating on water.
Remarkably, the houses in Hahoe are not just an open-air museum relic, they are actually inhabited by the over 200 people who still call this village home. For the inhabitants, the fame of their village has been a mixed blessing. While the government pays them to maintain their houses in pristine conditions, the influx of tourists has been nothing short of an invasion, of their privacy at least, with tourists often peeking over low fences to catch glimpses of what the interiors look like, stealing glances at the inhabitants through half opened doors.
“They don’t like tourists that much,” the guide explained, smiling almost apologetically.
Most of these inhabitants are old, practicing traditional occupations like agriculture, as their forefathers had done before, and if not for their modern clothing, one would have thought he had travelled back in time some five centuries at least.
The tile-roofed houses belonged to the nobility. They were the ones who could afford baked tiles from which the famous curved roofs of traditional Korean architecture are fashioned, something that is distinct to Asia.
Evidence of the superstitions and spirituality at the heart of the village is planted even in the architecture, on the engravings on the roofing tiles, on inscriptions on door panels. But curiously even the houses of the nobles have mud fences – or used to have mud fences, which are often topped with roofing tiles to prevent the rain from washing them away.
There was a reason for this as the superstitious villagers believed their canoes would be doomed if they are passed by concrete or stone fences.
But now that most of the villagers have outgrown their dependence on canoes, it is not uncommon to see stone walls, topped with tiles, in the traditional fashion replacing the old ones.
In the midst of Hahoe, right in the centre of the village is a glorious looking zelkova tree with some impressive proportions. The tree called Samsindang is reputed to be at least 600 years old and is thought to be the abode of the goddess Samsin. Here too, there is a carving, like the gods scattered at the entrance of the village, planted prominently before the tree, which is surrounded by strings upon which prayers, scribbled on papers are hung, forming a blind of prayer papers.
The goddess Samsin is thought to have powers over pregnancy, child birth and fostering. In other words, she is the goddess of fertility.
With the tree at the centre of the village, most houses in Hahoe take the liberty to be built facing the river or the mountains, unlike most houses in Korea, which are built to face the South or Southeast.
But with the decline of religious beliefs in Korea, with about 50 percent dissociating themselves from any religious belief, Sam sindang may in the nearest future serve only historical and aesthetic purposes in the village. And maybe the commemoration tree, Queen Elizabeth had planted in the house of one the nobles, may have acquired more prominence by then.
Walking back towards the entrance, this time through the pine forest bordering the village on one side, one is filled with the serenity that the residents of this village would otherwise enjoy on a normal day. The Mansongjeong Pine Forest is reputed to contain about 6,000 pine trees, but even a cursory look will reveal that this figure is greatly exaggerated. The forest was planted to compensate for the exposure of the village to the wind as there are no natural features providing cover from that side.
With the forest on your left, one can see the folk play yard, equipped with traditionally built swings and seesaws, where children of the ancients had probably played and fought; where children of the village still play.
If one had boarded the ferry and crossed to the other side of the river, one would have seen the famous Hwacheon Confucian Academy as well as the Gyeoman Pavilion.
Intangible Heritage
Some 200 metres from the entrance, where the wooden gods stand guard, there is an open air theatre. It is here that Hahoe’s intangible heritage is preserved. In the old days, the Byeolsingut Mask Dance used to be an avenue for the commoners to make fun of the nobility by wearing masks and performing satirical plays.
The masks are carved with 11 expressions, some more famous than the others, but all intended to conceal the identity of the wearer so as to capture without fear, the folly of the nobility of the times.
Now the masks have become famous symbols of Hahoe and are sold as souvenirs to the visitors of the village.
At the theatre, there are actors who still enact the plays, which like most satires are characterised by caricatures, exaggerated comical movements and dances before a large audience that knows it is witnessing something rare and historic.
Korea is a country that has grown tremendously in the last few decades, but it is here in Hahoe, the historic village of Korea, that some of its essence is preserved, where a traveller feels like he has travelled several centuries back in time.

 

First published in the Daily Trust,  May 7 2016

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Travels

That Memorial at Friedrichstraße

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Train to death

Evening in Berlin comes with shades of melancholy. Not the ideal mood for your first day in such a beautiful city. But I suppose that is the problem. Beneath this city’s charm, there is a shadow, a dark history that blankets my heart, me a foreigner, coming years after the worst of it. Footprints of this history are all over the city; monuments, historical sites, structures. Mementos of dark times gone.
Not far from my hotel on Friedrichstrasse, there is one such monument that has engraved itself on my mind. I had arrived earlier in the day and my new friend, Boris took me round to see Berlin and that was when I saw it. A haunting memorial titled “Train to Life-Train to death”. It is just beside the Friedrichstraße Train Station and features the statues of some children, five of them cast in a gloomy shade, heading off to concentration camps, and another two, going in the opposite direction. These ones, cast in ruddy hues, were the ones who got away, those who escaped the Nazi massacres and made it across to England by train shortly before the outbreak of WWII. The unfortunate ones were gassed; their lives and their dreams lost forever.
This memorial for a tragedy that occurred decades before and ended when Hitler and his armies were defeated in 1945 is haunting enough. But some people, in remembrance of what had happened, had tucked flowers into the crook of the arms of this statues, both the ones who got away and the ones who didn’t. There were flowers also on the pedestal as well. And in Berlin’s mild sun, the flowers were wilting, as I imagined the hopes of those children put on those trains to their deaths must have wilted decades before.
It was important for me to note, even after all these years, after generations have passed, that these children are being remembered and acknowledged, (and the role the railway played in this tragedy). They are commemorated not just with statues, incidentally designed by Frank Meisler, one of those who escaped the holocaust, but by people, generations after, who make the effort to bring flowers, to say, in their own way, that we know these things happened 70 years ago and we will not forget.
The image of this memorial stuck with me all evening such that not even a chance encounter with German celebrity and actress Eva Mattes, who was exceptionally nice, could improve my mood. Not even a visit to the Berliner Ensemble, where the great playwright Bertolt Brecht directed one of the most famous theatres in Europe, could do much good. Having encountered his works in my undergraduate days and admired him and his legacy, the excitement of seeing his theatre was severely dampened by the haunting image at the Friedrichstraße Railway Station. And by extension, the wilting flowers tucked into the arms of these statues came to signify to me Brecht’s disenchantment with his country.
He had escaped the Nazis and spent the war years in exile in the US, by the time Brecht decided to return, Germany had been split into two countries, East and West, communist and capitalist. Surprisingly, Brecht chose to return to the East because he believed communism would offer the chance to create a more balanced society. After a while, he realized his convictions were no more than misplaced ideals. Regardless, he chose to remain in the East and watched his dreams, like the flowers tucked into the arms of these statues at Friedrichstarasse, wilting.
But tears too, like flowers, and sometimes even like dreams, dry up. Nowhere is this more vividly demonstrated than at the city’s ‘Palace of Tears’, so named because of the many weeping that marked the parting of loved ones at one of the most famous entry point between East and West Berlin. Germany having been split by WWII allies, the capital Berlin, ended up wholly in East Germany, under the control of the Soviet Union, as opposed to the West that was controlled by the US, the UK and France. But the allies wanted a share of Berlin for themselves and so the city was split, one half for the western allies, the other for the Soviets. In 1961, the East German government, in a desperate move to prevent its disenchanted people from fleeing to the west, erected a massive wall surrounding the whole of West Berlin. And thus people who had crossed over to the other side of the city for trade, visit or other reasons in the morning, found they could not return to their homes by evening. It was that spontaneous. And between 1961 and 1989, Germans on different sides of the fence, needed a pass to cross over for a few hours to see relatives and friends and the partings, often at the Palace of Tears, were teary and emotional affairs.
Today, there is an exhibition there, featuring fragments of the old wall that had separated the city, pictures of one people divided, videos of the spontaneous erection of a wall and sealing of windows on buildings on the border, so people in the East couldn’t look into the West or dare an escape. There was a shocking video of a desperate young woman running right through the fence as it was being built, dangerously being entangled in the barbed wire and luckily being aided to escape. The walls were guarded by armed personnel and landmines. In 1989, this sad manifestation of repression was brought down by people power. And by 1990, the whole of Germany was unified.
A little later, crossing Berlin’s iconic Weidendamar Bruecke, the bridge straddling the Spree River, one is confronted by the spectacle, caught on from Paris, I hear, of lovers, attaching special padlocks symbolizing their loves on the rails of the bridge. The keys to these padlocks are often thrown into the bottom of the river to signify the unbreakable bond the lovers have forged. Romantic, but largely symbolic. These padlocks are often decorated with the name of the lovers and clusters of them have formed on the bridge, particularly on the wings of the Prussian Icarus on the rails.But perhaps the biggest padlock of all on that bridge, the one people will never see, is that of the East and West Berliners whose resilience has forged an unbreakable union. (Where better to overcome the trauma of a wall than at a bridge?) And the key to that padlock is most likely lost forever at the bottom of the Spree, like those children, ferried away on those trains, all those years before.

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