Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Art from the Daechu-ri Autonomous Village

DAECHURI, Gyeonggi Province - It is like entering a quarantine zone. Riot police, long coils of barbed wire stretching off into the distance, and checkpoints. Lots of checkpoints. There is no disease in the small village of Daechuri, near Pyeongtaek, but the hamlet is dying. Its final death certificate is likely to be issued at the end of this month when wrecking crews move in to demolish what is left of this formerly tight-knit farming community some 75 kilometers south of Seoul.

In December 2005 the government's Land Expropriation Committee approved the imminent seizure of Daechuri and the surrounding farmland to make way for the expansion of a nearby U.S. military base. The approval came with the ominous warning; forced evictions would take place if the residents did not move out peacefully.

Daechuri farmers and residents responded by marching to the Pyeongtaek City Hall where they burned their Korean residence cards, revoked their citizenship and declared the establishment of the Daechuri Autonomous Village. Over several years of negotiations, the government had offered compensation of up to 600 million won ($646,000) to the mostly elderly residents of Daechuri - meaning "great harvest village" in Korean - many of whom have already taken the cash and left. The small group of hold-outs who say the government offer is insufficient compensation for their land and their way of life, have made the village the focal point for anti-government, anti-American and anti-free trade activists from across Korea.

Last year, Daechuri was the scene of some of the fiercest and most violent confrontations between protesters and the government in recent years.

In one incident in early May, about 200 people were injured in clashes when thousands of riot police and soldiers escorted demolition crews into the village. Tempers flared when the demolition workers allegedly began destroying homes that had not been vacated by their owners.

The village school, once the focal point of resistance, has been reduced to a pile of crushed brickwork decorated with a strange array of items salvaged from the wreckage, including an old electric guitar.

As the villagers' struggle was more widely reported, Daechuri became something of a magnet not only for peace activists, but for artists and musicians. Vivid murals have appeared on walls throughout what remains of the village. Installation pieces and artwork of every description can found in what demonstrators and activists have dubbed the "Peace Village."

Residents and supporters gather daily for a candlelight vigil near the wrecked village school or in a warehouse decorated with anti-American slogans and now home to an extensive collection of oil paintings, posters and sketches. One of the larger and still intact buildings in the center of the village has thousands of photographs of Daechuri residents, past and present, on display. Faded sepia tone images of what were doubtless happier days.

In mid-February, the remaining residents gave up their almost six-year struggle and agreed to leave by the end of March.

Remarkably, given everything that the residents have gone through, they are still extremely welcoming and courteous to visitors. Willing to share their simple lunch with people who wander through the near deserted streets to marvel at the wrought iron sculptures and colorful murals.

The people of Daechuri feel they have been deserted by their own government as it pursues its alliance with Washington. Displaced by the Japanese who first built an airfield on their land back in 1939, and then by the Americans, who expanded the airfield even further with the establishment of Camp Humphreys.

Now as part of Washington's Global Posture Review and the reorganizing of the United States Forces Korea, Camp Humphreys is going to swallow up the last remains of Daechuri.

Soon the paddy fields that produced what some say was the best rice in Korea will disappear under concrete pavement. The residents, some of whom have known no other home, will be scattered. In less than two weeks it will all be gone, remembered only in photographs and in peoples' memories.

(Photographs from Daechu-ri)

(Video from Daechu-ri)

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