Still waiting for apology for a life robbed at age 15

Photographers are such fools, jokes 88-year-old Lee Ok Seon as she gets ready to pose in front of the camera.

"They only know how to say three words - one, two, three," she explains with an infectious laugh that lights up her wrinkled face framed by a cloud of white hair.

It's a laugh that belies all the years of suffering she endured, after she was grabbed off the street in 1942 and forced to become a military sex slave, euphemistically called comfort woman, of Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Now a human rights activist, the feisty woman has travelled to Japan, Germany and the United States to share her story and raise awareness about the sufferings of comfort women, as well as to demand an apology and compensation from Japan.

Historians estimate that more than 200,000 women, mostly Korean, suffered this fate.

There are 238 of them registered as sex slavery victims with the South Korea government, but only 47 are still alive today. Their average age is 90.

Madam Lee, who was born to a poor family in the southern port city of Busan, has vivid memories of the day that changed her life.

She was 15 years old, working at an inn in south-eastern Ulsan city in the hope of saving enough money to pay for school.

"Two men appeared out of nowhere, one was Korean and one was Japanese.

"One of them grabbed my right arm, the other grabbed my left arm, and they dragged me away," she tells The Straits Times.

She was sent to a military brothel in Yanji city in Jilin province, north-eastern China, where dozens of other young girls like her were held in captivity to cater to Japanese soldiers fighting in the war.

"It was a life not for living," she says, wincing at the memory exacerbated by the numerous scars on her body, including a knife-inflicted wound the size of a Singapore 50-cent coin on her right forearm.

She was badly beaten when she tried to run away once. "They threatened to chop off my legs if I dared to escape again," she says. "The Japanese are bad people," she repeats three times during the hour-long interview.

Madam Lee was freed after the war ended in 1945, but she was too ashamed to go home. "How can I possibly go back and face my parents with the words comfort woman written on my forehead?"

So she stayed on in China and lived a quiet life in the countryside, hiding her secret.

She married twice. Her first husband was drafted to war in China and never returned. She then married a widower and took care of his son. Beaming with pride, she shows this reporter a family photo.

She points to her two step-grandsons, aged 27 and 32, and says that the younger one studies well and speaks three languages - English, Chinese and Korean.

"They miss me and I miss them too," she says. "But I must stay on and continue to fight (for the rights of comfort women)."

Madam Lee returned to South Korea in 2000, after her husband died. She was reunited with her two brothers, who live in the north-western port city of Incheon, and they would sometimes visit one another, she said.

Home for Madam Lee is the House Of Sharing, a charity home for former comfort women, located in Gyeonggi province which surrounds Seoul.

It is funded mainly by private donations and has staff members looking after 10 halmoni (Korean for grandmother), as they are called.

About 20 halmoni have lived there since it was built in 1995, including Madam Kim Hwa Sun, who was forced to work in a military brothel in Singapore.

She died in 2012, but is remembered by a bronze bust in her likeness, displayed alongside eight others at the entrance to the house.

Like everyone else living there, Madam Lee has her own room, furnished with a bed, wardrobe, bookcase, TV, refrigerator, fan and a small dining table.

The walls of her room are decorated with framed photographs bearing testimony to an active life devoted to advocacy.

A portrait of her in a white wedding gown stands out. A few years ago, seven of the women in the house, some of whom remained single, got to wear wedding gowns and pose with the city's mayor.

"The mayor was our groom," she says with a laugh. Her smile fades as she starts pointing to the "brides" who have since died.

There is also a faded photograph of Madam Lee in her 30s. She was working in a hospital in China then, she says.

As she never got a chance to attend school, Madam Lee started to learn to read and write after moving into the House of Sharing.

Her bookcase is well stocked with books - from novels to language textbooks - and her love for reading earned her the nickname the "Reading Professor".

Madam Lee says she used to join the weekly Wednesday demonstrations in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to demand justice for former comfort women, but she stopped going there in recent years, after the travelling took a toll on her health.

She still maintains an active lifestyle - going for walks, lifting a 5kg dumb-bell and stretching her arms with an elastic band - and does not hesitate to give interviews, as she feels it will help promote her cause.

"Japan must apologise and compensate us for all the sufferings we went through," she says.

"That's the least they can do since they can't turn back the clock and return me to the time I was 15."

This article was first published on August 17, 2015.
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