Refugees must cross terrain like this to reach safety in Southeast Asia
On one side, the rice reaches to the horizon. On the other, corn stretches higher than the van.
It feels like rural Iowa, but hotter and with palm trees.
The van lurches along, swaying back and forth with the ruts in the road. We’ve been driving for five hours through dense jungle and villages so small that you’d miss them if you blinked. It’s starting to seem like we’re in the middle of nowhere.
We finally coast to a stop and LiNK’s Field Manager points to a steep ravine.
“We’re here,” she says.
Somewhere in Southeast Asia, close to where North Korean refugees meet LiNK’s Field Team
For the next hour we stop every couple hundred yards. She points to a field or a patch of trees and recounts stories.
Stories of screeching to a stop, sliding open the door, and pulling North Korean refugees into the van.
Stories of refugees so dehydrated they barely have the words to ask for water.
Stories of people collapsing in exhaustion, caked in mud and peppered with bruises from the long trek through the jungle.
“What do refugees do once they’re in the van?” I ask.
“Some start crying, the tears stream down their cheeks. They’re so overwhelmed that they finally made it. Others flash smiles in triumph, soaking in every second.”
LiNK’s Field team meets North Korean Refugees in places just like this. It’s muddy and hot and the mosquitos don’t stop biting.
This road meanders along the border. You can’t see the line but throw a stone in a certain direction and it’s likely to land in another country.
For North Korean refugees this border means everything. Cross it, and they’re safe. The North Korean regime cannot have them arrested and forcibly returned.
The danger is finally gone — evaporated in the sweltering heat and suffocating humidity of Southeast Asia.
I’m back in South Korea to interview a North Korean woman who reached freedom through LiNK’s rescue network.
It took her four tries to make it to South Korea.
She was arrested twice at the North Korean border and once in China. Each time the punishments seemed unimaginable, but they’re terrifyingly common.
She recounts the horrific torture she endured for trying to escape. The way they slammed her head into a nail on the wall. The torment of witnessing cellmates whither away from starvation. The heartbreak of watching her 5-year old daughter being beaten in front of her.
I’m trying hard to collect the facts. But hers is one of those stories that hollows you out. Leaving you nauseous and numb.
The conversation dwindles. I can see the toll that sharing these stories are having. Her shoulders start to slump. She barely looks up to make eye contact anymore.
I pull out my phone and show her a video. Her eyes flash with life.
It’s a video of that dirt road. And the exact place where she finally reached freedom. There are corn stalks on the left and a small farmhouse hidden behind palms leaves on the right.
“Do you remember this place?” I ask.
“How could I ever forget it?” she says without looking up.
She’s smiling for the first time all afternoon.
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