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Surviving on Camp 44 Surviving on Camp 44
by Joseph Gatt
2019-11-22 10:15:29
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I was at a death camp in South Korea between January 2, 2015 and June 21, 2015. Only after reading Viktor Frankl's “Man's search for meaning” am I fully able to express, rather clearly, the horrors I went through.

Frankl is a psychiatrist who survived Aushwitz, and in his book draws a parallel between the horrors of the camp and psychological and psychiatric conditions of camp detainees, and survivors.

cam401_400So how did I end up in a death camp in the first place? Many factors are involved. But the main factor was that between 2007 and June 2015 I had been dating a Korean diplomat. My ex-girlfriend passed the diplomatic examination in November 2012. My ex-girlfriend had something of a foul temper, voracious ambitions, and an ego the size of the USSR.

Now when you have a grade 7 (rather low-ranking) diplomat show up to meetings and claim that she will soon be appointed ambassador to some country (she preferred the United States) and that she perhaps had ministerial or presidential ambitions, the entire Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs detected warning signs and rang alarm bells. Remember in Korea diplomats enjoy very modest promotions and usually need to work 20 years before they reach assistant director positions, and another 10 years before they reach director positions. Only the luckiest ones get to be ambassadors, and ambassadors usually enter the ministry through the level 5 examination, not the level 7 examination.

The Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs thought I was the reason behind my ex-girlfriends conquerer ambitions. I speak 9 languages, am rather skilled at teaching languages, and have read dozens of books on politics and other topics. To the Koreans, I was Socrates and my ex-girlfriend was Plato, and if I passed on my knowledge to my girlfriend she could indeed be the next Korean president.

The straw that broke the camel's back was when newly-elected president Park Geun Hye was briefed about my girlfriend and I's case. President-elect Park did not see a problem with it, saw that as a blessing, and thought about promoting my ex-girlfriend to an honorable position and promoting me to an honorable position. That caused a hydrogene bomb of jealousy to fume on the Korean presidential palace and the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

President Park's collaborators told the president that my ex-girlfriend was no big fan of her (which is true) and that my ex-girlfriend is a proud liberal voter who hates the conservatives (president Park is a hardcore conservative). Furthermore the president was briefed on the fact that I was a professor despite not having a Ph.D. (which was the case of 97% foreign professors but only about 5% Korean professors) and the president thought it was indeed unusual that I was a professor despite “not having the credentials.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized a general strike, mainly because president Park wanted to promote some people and not others, and mainly because president Park wanted to promote my freshly incoming girlfriend who had not yet worked on the job and not proven her abilities. After all I'm the one who speaks 9 languages, not my ex-girlfriend.

In Korean fashion, both my ex-girlfriend and I had to be punished for causing all the trouble in the Republic of Korea. I was banned for teaching anywhere, and my ex-girlfriend was demoted to petty clerk tasks which require hard labor.

Now I did not remain silent or adopt a fatalistic approach to my ban from teaching and professorship. I returned to my Ph.D. program, was harassed on the Ph.D. program, including by being failed at tests at which I performed rather well. My professors suggested I “commit suicide” to which I replied “you're the one who never read a book! You're the fraud! I'd shoot myself right now if I were you!”

Anyway I mobilized the press, discussed my case at the local radio, and started defending the rights of teachers and professors in general. I had nowhere to go. I do not have citizenship of any country, have no family, no friends who could take me under their wing. The only thing I could do was fight to regain my job and earn my bread. My ex-girlfriend was a mess, she was depressed, drank heavily, and gambled high-stakes.

I was deported to Camp 44. The first days were no joke. I had to sit still all day, and would get severely yelled at and receive death threats if I did not sit still. I was overworked, and my job involved taking care of the needs and administrative files of fellow foreign prisoners. Imagine 76 starving prisoners you need to take care of.

Now I did have a phone and internet access. I did have the option to leave if I had somewhere to go. I called my foster parents and begged them to take me back and they said “you can't keep a job.” I called the Algerian embassy and begged them to intervene in the face of torture and starvation. The secretaries were shocked, but the ambassador said there was nothing he could do.

I spend 6 months hardly eating anything. The food was all microwave food at a local small mart, which was rat infested. I would heat the meal at the microwave, would take just enough bites to survive, and by the fifth or sixth bite would almost throw up. The food was microwave spaghetti of the worst kind, or microwave pizza of the worst kind, or microwave rice and spam of the worst kind.

Torture was always random, and never happened in a predictable way. Sometimes I would get tortured first thing in the morning, for “bringing coffee to the office.” Sometimes I would get tortured all day. Sometimes it was just afternoons. And sometimes the guards would be friendly with me for a couple of days, and I would think the torture days are over, only to see the torture days come back.

Now, to the interesting question. What goes on in the mind of a death camp detainee who is constantly being tortured? Strange things happen indeed. At night, when I would daydream before falling asleep, I would think that the following morning I would be greeted by a huge crowd waving flags and cheering at my resilience. Other nights I would daydream about the president greeting me the following morning. Other days, as in when Secretary of State John Kerry and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi were in Seoul, I would daydream about them visiting the camp and liberating me. How naive, the camp is of course one of South Korea's best kept secerts. Other nights I would daydream about an internet campaign aimed at my liberation. Other nights I would daydream about demonstrations in Seoul where Koreans would chant “modoo tah Aljjery yootae-in” (we are all Algerian Jews.)

Those daydreams were not random. During my days of detention, I wrote several papers in a local Korean newspaper explaining that I was in a very complicated situation. I had also written what I thought were touching poems and solutions to some of Korea's problems. The articles were never met with the reactions I expected, and were met with indifference.

What goes on in a detainee's mind during torture? My main concern was to avoid breaking any bones, and to try to stay as healthy as possible, because in case of broken bones or other medical conditions there was no guarantee I would get treatment as there were no hospitals surrounding the camp. One of the guards had to go to the hospital one morning and didn't know where the hospital was. The other guard told him where it was, and the guard kept calling asking for directions, and only got to the hospital four hours after departing. So I had to work on my reflexes to make sure no bone was broken and no cut or bruise would require surgery.

I would occasionally call my foster family to complain about the torture, and what the mother would say was “you worry too much, you should stay calm! Try a few yoga techniques!”

Now what happens in the mind of a detainee after liberation? My liberation date was due on June 30, but I escaped on Sunday June 21, 2015. I was taking a couple of liberated detainees to the airport, and took advantage of the hustle and bustle and confusion at the airport to escape. I lost my guards, and decided to take the train to Seoul.

Arriving in Seoul, I found a friend and told him what happened. He didn't believe me. He thought I had watched too many Holocaust movies. “You're not a Jew under the Nazis” he said, then laughed and shrugged.

I left Korea on July 7, 2015. No one came looking for me. In the two weeks between my liberation and my departure, I ate well, but threw up pretty much everything I ate. My ex-girlfriend made it clear we were separated, and that made me cry quite a few times. I thought people would come looking for me, but no one came looking for me.

I left on July 7, and there was no incident at the airport. I was allowed to board my flight to Istanbul, before taking the connecting flight to Algiers. Inside my first flight, I decided my story would be “I lost my job and couldn't find another one, so I have to move to Algiers.” A story on death camps would be met with ridicule and contempt in a country like Algeria.

I returned to an abandoned home in Algiers. The few people I knew in Algiers made fun of my “immigration failure” and sarcastically called me a “failed immigrant.” I did expect people to come looking for me in Istanbul or Algiers. Over 4 years on, I have still not had official contacts.

My mood has stabilized a great deal. Life is never easy, but I have picked up habits and gotten some work done. Had it not been for Frankl's book, I probably could never have told a coherent story about surviving Korea's death camps. But in the era of what I like to call “slideshow journalism” where journalism is a succession of pictures and very short captions or where journalists write about whatever gets the most clicks, this kind of story is hard to get through. No one clicks on stories about death camps.

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