As Afghan Refugee Crisis Unfolds, Koreans Recall ‘Miracle’ Evacuation

SEOUL — When he watched the scenes of determined refugees making an attempt to flee Afghanistan in the course of the American withdrawal ㅡ moms clutching infants, males begging to board airplanes in Kabul — Sohn Yang-young, 70, felt tears welling up in his eyes, his coronary heart aching as if he have been there.

His household had lived via a equally traumatic wartime expertise.

Mr. Sohn’s mother and father have been amongst 91,000 refugees that the American army evacuated from Hungnam, a port on the japanese coast of North Korea, in a frantic retreat from Chinese Communist troops in the course of the Korean War in 1950. They boarded the final ship leaving the port with refugees — the S.S. Meredith Victory, a United States service provider marine cargo freighter.

Mr. Sohn was one in all 5 infants born on the ship.

“When I watched the chaotic scenes at the Afghan airport, I thought of my parents and the same life-or-death situation they had gone through in Hungnam,” Mr. Sohn stated in an interview. “I could not fight back tears, especially when I saw those children.”

A child being handed to American troops over a wall at Kabul’s worldwide airport in the course of the chaotic U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan in August.Credit…Omar Haidari/by way of Reuters

In late December 1950, six months after the Korean War started, 100,000 American and South Korean troops have been pulling again via the bitter chilly and deep snow after the United Nations forces suffered a heavy loss on the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, also called Lake Jangjin. The solely path to security within the south was by sea.

As was the case in Afghanistan this 12 months, information of the American withdrawal triggered a big exodus. By the time the American troops reached Hungnam, throngs of individuals had already arrived on the port, hoping to flee the violence as Chinese troops, combating alongside the North’s forces, closed in.

The Americans determined to rescue as many refugees as attainable, jettisoning weapons and different cargo to make room ​on the 190 ships​ dispatched to evacuate the troopers. The operation turned generally known as “the Miracle of Christmas,” and by some estimates, it was the only largest wartime evacuation of civilian refugees in American historical past till Afghanistan.

Older South Koreans invariably cite the evacuation once they discuss their nation’s alliance with the United States, solid in the course of the warfare. When South Korea airlifted 391 Afghans final month — individuals who labored for South Korean troops stationed in Afghanistan and their relations — its resolution was compelled partially by what the American army did in Hungnam.

American troops getting ready for the lengthy highway to the ocean after heavy losses on the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in the course of the Korean War. As with Afghanistan, information of the U.S. withdrawal triggered a big exodus. Credit…Underwood Archives/Getty Images

“The Americans were our savior,” stated Lee Kweng-pil, one other child born aboard the Meredith Victory. “Without them, my parents would not have survived the war and I would not be here.”

Mr. Sohn, Mr. Lee and different youngsters of the Hungnam refugees, together with President Moon Jae-in, grew up listening to their mother and father recount how terrified they have been of being left behind underneath Communist rule, and the way panicked they have been to get on the American ships. Mass extrajudicial executions of civilians accused of collaborating with the enemy have been rampant in the course of the warfare.

A group of excavators in Asan, South Korea, performing a easy ritual for bloodbath victims in June 2019. Extrajudicial executions of civilians accused of collaborating with the enemy have been rampant in the course of the Korean War.Credit…Woohae Cho for The New York Times

When the Americans retreated, concern unfold via Hungnam. Its streets and harbor have been flooded with folks shouting for misplaced relations, infants screaming and army cops blowing whistles to manage the crowds, in response to testimonies by a few of those that escaped. Fire and smoke rose as troopers burned vans and different matériel they might not take with them.

Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan ›

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Updated Sept. 2, 2021, 5:49 p.m. ETAs Afghan evacuees are screened for safety dangers, only a few have raised issues, the army says.The final U.S. diplomat to go away Kabul has examined optimistic for the virus.The White House rejects easing sanctions on the Taliban.

“Shells flew overhead as the Allied ships fired to deter the Communist advance while the Communists fired back to sink the American ships,” stated Han Geum-suk, a nurse in Hamhung who joined the evacuation. “We rushed through the cross-fire back and forth several times before we could catch a ship. The ground was strewn with people with their luggages who were killed. There was hardly any standing room on the ship.”

Few occasions of the Korean War have seared the psyche of older South Koreans as deeply because the Hungnam evacuation, which they noticed as an emblem of wartime calamity and humanitarian grace. It is memorialized in South Korean textbooks, in addition to in one of many nation’s most beloved pop songs​​. “Ode to My Father,” a 2014 film primarily based partially on the evacuation, turned one of many highest-grossing movies in ​the historical past of South Korean cinema​​. ​

Mr. Moon’s mother and father have been among the many refugees who caught the Meredith Victory. The ship, designed to hold not more than 59 folks, left Hungnam on Dec. 23, 1950, with 14,000 refugees. Sailing with no escort, it arrived at Geoje Island, off the south coast of South Korea, on Christmas Day. Mr. Moon, who was born in a refugee camp on Geoje in 1953, stated his mom used to inform him concerning the candies handed out to refugees who have been jam-packed into the cargo hull on Christmas Eve.

He has referred to as the Meredith Victory’s voyage “one of the greatest humanitarian operations in human history.”

Korean refugees crowding the decks of fishing boats and different vessels in the course of the evacuation of Hungnam in December 1950. Credit…Corbis, by way of Getty Images

“I am deeply moved by the humanity the American military demonstrated when it evacuated not just its own troops, but refugees as well during such a desperate situation,” Mr. Moon stated when he visited the United States in 2017.

Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that got here after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, together with floggings, amputations and mass executions, to implement their guidelines. Here’s extra on their origin story and their document as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the highest leaders of the Taliban, males who’ve spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is thought about them or how they plan to manipulate, together with whether or not they are going to be as tolerant as they declare to be. One spokesman instructed The Times that the group needed to overlook its previous, however that there could be some restrictions.

How did the Taliban acquire management? See how the Taliban retook energy in Afghanistan in a couple of months, and examine how their technique enabled them to take action.

What occurs to the ladies of Afghanistan? The final time the Taliban have been in energy, they barred girls and ladies from taking most jobs or going to high school. Afghan girls have made many good points because the Taliban have been toppled, however now they concern that floor could also be misplaced. Taliban officers are attempting to reassure girls that issues will likely be totally different, however there are indicators that, at the very least in some areas, they’ve begun to reimpose the outdated order.

What does their victory imply for terrorist teams? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years in the past in response to terrorism, and lots of fear that Al Qaeda and different radical teams will once more discover secure haven there. On Aug. 26, lethal explosions outdoors Afghanistan’s principal airport claimed by the Islamic State demonstrated that terrorists stay a menace.

How will this have an effect on future U.S. coverage within the area? Washington and the Taliban might spend years pulled between cooperation and battle, Some of the important thing points at hand embrace: the way to cooperate in opposition to a mutual enemy, the Islamic State department within the area, generally known as ISIS-Ok, and whether or not the U.S. ought to launch $9.four billion in Afghan authorities foreign money reserves which might be frozen within the nation.

The Meredith Victory’s captain, Leonard LaRue, made the choice to desert weapons and cargo to hold as many refugees as he might in what has been referred to as “the largest evacuation from land by a single ship.” The captain turned a Benedictine monk in New Jersey after the warfare and died in 2001. The U.S. bishops’ convention has lately expressed help for his canonization.

​Since the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Moon’s authorities has despatched thousands and thousands of face masks as a token of gratitude to Korean War veterans world wide, together with three surviving crew members of the Meredith Victory: Robert Lunney, Burley Smith and Merl Smith.

Mr. Sohn, one of many infants born on the ship, met with Mr. Lunney a number of years in the past when the American was invited to South Korea. Together they confirmed that Mr. Sohn was “Kimchi One.” According to Mr. Lunney, the ship’s American crew nicknamed the 5 infants born on board “Kimchi” as a result of, apparently, it was the Korean phrase most acquainted to them, Mr. Sohn stated.

Mr. Lee was “Kimchi Five​.”

Both Mr. Lee and Mr. Sohn stated that once they noticed the information of a younger Afghan soccer participant falling off an American airplane and of ​infants being born throughout airlifts from Kabul​, they relived the ache ​of war-torn Korean households.

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, on the White House in June 2017 with President Donald J. Trump. Mr. Moon’s mother and father have been among the many Koreans rescued in the course of the evacuation. Credit…Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Before becoming a member of the mad rush onto the Meredith Victory, Mr. Sohn’s father and mom entrusted their 9-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter to his brother, who stayed behind. His mother and father believed the household could be reunited when the tide of the warfare turned in favor of the United States.

Instead, the warfare was halted in a cease-fire and the Korean Peninsula stays divided. Mr. Sohn’s mother and father died with out seeing their two youngsters within the North once more.

Thousands of refugees have been stranded in Hungnam after the final ship departed. The American army bombarded the harbor to destroy its gear and provides in order that the Communists couldn’t use them. Mr. Lee, 70, stated he ​has ​heard from North Korean defectors who say that many refugees left behind on the port died in the course of the bombing, and that others have been despatched to jail camps. ​

​After resettling in South Korea, Mr. Lee’s father ran a photograph studio and his mom a grocery retailer. Mr. Lee turned a veterinarian. They all named their retailers “Peace,” he stated. “My father didn’t want another war ​in Korea.”

Koreans fleeing Hungnam on U.S. Navy vessels. The evacuation, in late December 1950, was codenamed “Christmas Cargo.”Credit…FPG/Archive Photos, by way of Getty Images