9.27 Shangmoo

“You’ve never heard of the 9.27 Shangmoo?” he asked, staring at me wide-eyed. “On September 27, the government formed the Shangmoo, a band of police to collect people who are not at home or at school and take them to shelters. Every city has a force of these 9.27 Shangmoo, except maybe Pyongyang, because [it’s] like the golden perfect city in the sky, with golden perfect people who all have homes and who never do anything wrong.

“But everywhere else, there are so many kids not at school, adults hunting for food… the Shangmoo’s job is to clean the streets of these people. The Shangmoo send the people they find to so-called shelters—the adults to one place, the kids to another. But these are not nice places. They’re guhoso, jails.”

“Where are you taking me?” I demanded, afraid he was taking me to the prison. … “Here,” he said, stopping. We were standing at the edge of the market.

“I can’t look after you. This is your kitchen now,” Young-bum said, waving an arm around the market.

I followed his hand and looked into the tired eyes of the vendors, eyes that no longer reflected light. The men were wrinkled, sunken, and walking around on bowlegs; the children had runny noses, swollen stomachs, and open sores; the women, who like my own eomeoni, I could tell from their fine features and graceful movements, had been beautiful once like swans, until their skin became first pallid from malnutrition and then blue from dirt and their hair began to fall out.

“At least you’re alive,” Young-bum whispered.

“Am I?” I grunted. “Maybe I died a long time ago, and this is just my nightmare.”

[Extract from “Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea” by Sungju Lee & Susan McClelland]

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