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Hibakusha: 2nd gen. Korean who met pope in Hiroshima vows to pass on A-bomb truth

A-bomb survivor Park Nam-joo, right, is greeted by Pope Francis in Hiroshima's Naka Ward on Nov. 24, 2019. (Mainichi/Naohiro Yamada)

HIROSHIMA -- For roughly 20 seconds, A-bomb survivor Park Nam-joo held Pope Francis' hands. It was a night she, a second-generation "Zainichi" Korean resident of Japan, will never forget.

The 87-year-old from Hiroshima's Nishi Ward was invited to the "meeting for peace" at Peace Memorial Park in the western Japan city's Naka Ward on Nov. 24 as a nuclear bomb survivor, or hibakusha. She met the pope, 82, in front of the faintly illuminated cenotaph for A-bomb victims.

"I've thought over and over that I wanted to die, but I felt very grateful to be alive then," she said, talking about the brief moment she spent with the head of the Catholic Church.

Park was born in the city of Hiroshima, and exposed to radiation at age 12 when she was riding a trolley just 1.8 kilometers west of the atomic bomb's hypocenter when it fell at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945. To this day, she still has scars from her injuries in three spots on her head.

She married a Catholic Zainichi Korean in a ceremony at a prefabricated cathedral that was built on the remains of a church that was destroyed in the bombing. Their marriage motivated her to get baptized about 70 years ago.

Park eventually became pregnant with twins, but both died without ever emitting a cry into the world. When workers at the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC), a U.S. agency tasked to investigate radiation effects, came to see her and retrieve the corpses, her infuriated husband said their actions were "insulting." While there were other bereaved families who could not afford to have funerals or graves and had to give up the bodies of their loved ones, Park was lucky enough to have her twin babies buried in a Catholic cemetery.

Unable to find a job, she made a living by means including selling steel scrap she would find. Park and her husband went on to have four children, and to provide for them she started a pig farm where she worked day and night.

In the course of her life, she has undergone surgery for cancer three times. When she could no longer hide her bottled-up anger, she would remember how the bible taught her to "forgive, if you have anything against anyone." Faith was what supported her through life.

When she met Pope Francis in person, she felt her struggles had paid off. She remembers bowing her head and shaking his hands, which she described as warm and soft, but she was too overwhelmed to take in if he said anything to her. But his warmth and the speech he delivered afterwards were engraved deep in her memory.

The disastrous scenes she saw immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima came flooding back as she listened to the pope saying the use of atomic energy for purposes of war is a crime against human dignity.

"On that day in Hiroshima, there were no distinctions between race or nationality. We were just trying to survive together in a terrible situation," Park said.

The 87-year-old hopes the pope's words will reach people across the world. Park, who began to talk about her experience as a hibakusha after her husband died in 2002, pledged to pass on the truth of the bombing as long as she is alive, with the belief that such efforts will help lead to a world free of nuclear weapons -- her dearest wish.

(Japanese original by Misa Koyama, Hiroshima Bureau)

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