Eun Hye closed the bathroom stall door. She was now in the safest and dirtiest place in the kotjebi camp for North Korean street children.
Her parents and sisters were in China. Her brother was with an uncle in North Korea. Months earlier, she also stayed with her uncle—until there wasn’t enough food for all of them. That’s when Eun Hye, 16 at the time, decided to leave and turned to the streets so her little brother would survive.
Only a few weeks later, she was caught by the police and brought to a camp for street kids. It was a crowded place with over 2,000 children. There wasn’t even enough room to sit. She had to stand day and night, which made her legs swell up. For food, she received five tiny dirt-covered potatoes three times a day.
With no opportunity to wash themselves, the children’s bodies were filthy and tormented by maggots. Every day, children passed away because of the malnutrition.
In the quiet of the stall, Eun Hye remembered the prayers of her grandmother. Could this invisible God save her? she thought. She remembered the way her grandmother would secretly find a place to kneel and speak to the one she called “Hanonim,” which means Lord.
Eun Hye whispered the words she had heard her grandmother whisper on so many occasions before. “Hanonim, please save me. Please rescue me. Bring me back to my family,” she said with the quiet voice of a 16-year-old girl.
In this place, nobody wanted to go to the bathroom unless they had no choice. But Eun Hye came to appreciate those precious moments alone with the God of her grandmother. “Lord, save me from this pain, sadness and death,” she would repeat in the quiet of the bathroom stall.
Two months after her arrival in the camp, the guards asked for volunteers to collect chestnuts by climbing up trees in the mountains. It meant a long, difficult journey. Eun Hye and the other children were very weak and she had no intention of participating in what could become a walk of death. But then she heard a voice in her head she didn’t recognize that told her to volunteer. So she joined the group.