Nanami's Flight

                Recently I’ve been getting a number of requests for information about Father Kapaun from all over the world.  I don’t know for sure what has been prompting these requests, but it is exciting to see Father Kapaun’s story spreading.  This week, however, I received a letter from England that was different.  Instead of asking for more information, it was a woman named Nanami who was sharing her story of surviving the Korean War.  She had recently heard about Father Kapaun for the first time, and his story had a profound impact on her, although she has quite the story in her own right, which I’d like to share.

                 Nanami was a thirteen-year-old living in Seoul, South Korea, at the time the Korean War began.  Born in Japan from a Japanese mother and a South Korean father, the family moved to Seoul when she was two.  The North Korean People’s Army crossed the border into the Republic of Korea on June 25, 1950 and by June 28 had captured the capital of Seoul, where Nanami and her family were living.  They abandoned their house and went to a friend’s house in Seoul, but it was already too late to escape the city.  Nanami’s father attempted to escape three weeks later, but was caught by someone from the Communist Headquarters who knew him well.  Nanami never saw her father again.

                After that, Nanami, her mother, and her little brother, age 6, were able to flee and headed southeast towards the port city of Pusan, still under control by the Republic of Korea forces.  From there they hoped to catch a refugee ship to Japan, her mother’s homeland.  Nanami says that the next five months the family spent in flight from Seoul towards Pusan were a real “hell”.  Nearly the entire time was spent behind enemy lines and in constant danger.  The North Koreans were especially brutal to the civilians, often raping or killing them outright (the South Koreans in turn treated the North Korean prisoners in much the same way).  Furthermore, because the Koreans hated the Japanese and her mother did not speak much Korean, they were in even more danger.

                Nevertheless, the three set off on foot across the rugged Korean countryside.  They had no money, no food and no shelter- only the clothes on their backs.  Nanami said she became the food provider, navigator and protector for her mother and brother.  At one point in their journey a local communist party member of about 20 years old caught Nanami.  With weapons and ammo slung around his body he questioned her: “Where do you come from, and where are you going?”  Nanami refused to answer, and so the young man accused her of being a South Korean spy and locked her and her mother and brother in a room.  A week later the Communists decided to execute her.  The young man came in and told her that she had five minutes to live.  Nanami said that she was not a Christian at this point, but she prayed hard to the God inside her heart.  After the five minutes were up, he took her outside and fired the shot.  Nanami heard the loud bang from the gun firing and fainted.  Later she learned that the young man’s brother had been killed by Japanese Imperial Army soldiers, and when the young man found out that Nanami was part Japanese, he wanted to get revenge.  Whether he just wanted to scare her or he had a last-second change of heart, he decided to fire the gun into the air instead of shooting her.  Nanami says that it was at this point that she was no longer a 13-year-old girl but became a human being.

                After the incident the family was freed and continued to make their way to Pusan.  All the while bloody battles were being fought between the North Korean army and the UN and South Korean forces.  Nanami says that while she never met Father Kapaun, they were in the same area of the country at the same time, and that he was experiencing the same struggles and sufferings that she was going through.  Indeed, in several of his letters home, Father Kapaun wrote of the heartbreak he experienced at seeing the farms and homes of the South Koreans devastated and their lives ruined.  The tragedies that the people experienced were unspeakable.

                Nanami also decided at this point that it was safer to appear as a boy.  She shaved off her hair, put on a man’s shirt and baggy trousers, and started acting and talking like a boy.  She told her mother that if anyone spoke to her, to simply act deaf and dumb.  This strategy proved to be very helpful, and they avoided being caught.  There was one incident when they encountered a number of young North Korean soldiers on the road.  One of the young men came up to her and said “Hey lady, are you hungry? Eat it!” and gave her a bowl of meat balls.  Inside herself, Nanami sensed danger, but the young man simply offered the food and a cigarette and walked away.  Another time, when they were just outside of Pusan, they came upon a South Korean Army camp.  The General, thinking she was a boy, offered her a job in the Army serving as his personal assistant, and even told her “I will make you a fine officer!”  However, they finally convinced him that they needed to head south to Pusan and he let them go.

                After reaching Pusan, Nanami and her family were able to take a boat to Japan.  They moved into a place in Tokyo near a Catholic Church, where she was baptized at age 14 with 5 other people.  It was in Japan that she later met her husband, originally from the United Kingdom, and they eventually returned to live there, where he served in Her Majesty’s Coast Guard.  After retiring, they settled on the coast, which has become Nanami’s new home.  She is a big supporter of the British Korean War Veterans Association.

                Eight years ago Nanami started sharing her story with the local women’s and church groups and with several schools.  As I said, she had never heard of Father Kapaun until last October when a friend from her church gave her a small booklet on his life.  Knowing from experience many of the dangers, challenges and sufferings that Father Kapaun faced, his story touched the deepest part of her heart.  She correctly describes him as another Christ for his soldiers and the people he encountered in Korea.  In the same way as he visited the soldiers on the battlefield to bring them some of Christ’s peace, Father Kapaun visited Nanami.  In the 66 years that have passed since her flight from Korea, Nanami says that she has never cried- until reading Father Kapaun’s story that is.  She says that his “visit” allowed her to finally open up for the first time to cry and bring all the pains from that summer to God, and that in turn, let her be free.

Nanami’s story struck me and took me by surprise.  I wasn’t expecting a letter from someone with such a courageous story of her own, let alone the impact that Father Kapaun’s story had on hers.  Now that I stop and think about it, even after reaching Japan she probably never had much of a chance to process the pain, suffering and fear she felt at having to flee her own country.  They had to create a new life for themselves, and there were probably few people who would have understood the extent of her trials anyway.  It was Father Kapaun’s own faith and selflessness when faced with the same conditions that was a beautiful witness to her of God’s love; he was someone who understood her and who spent himself to minister to others who had the same suffering and fear.  I think Father Kapaun would say that this is why they went to fight for the people of Korea, and that he was just doing his small part.  For me, it’s a blessing to be able to hear Nanami’s story, and also how Father Kapaun continues to seek out people in need.

blog comments powered by Disqus