JINDO, SOUTH KOREA – The mother, slightly drunk, sits on the edge of a windblown dock and wails.
A Buddhist monk approaches and wipes the tears from her face as she pours out her grief and longing for her missing son. He leads her away from the dock’s edge and, as she weeps, chants Buddhist scriptures and sounds a wooden temple block in a prayer for her son’s return.
“They are really suffering,” said the monk, Bul Il, who came from the southeastern port city of Busan to help the families of the more than 100 still missing in the sunken South Korean ferry Sewol. “It’s painful for me to watch their misery,” he said, his face peeling and red from long chants on a platform facing the sea.
Bul Il is one member of an impromptu city that has sprung up at this normally sleepy port for the families of those lost in the disaster. The city runs on the kindness of strangers.
A sense of national mourning over a tragedy that will likely result in more than 300 deaths, most of them high school students, has prompted an outpouring of volunteers. More than 16,000 people — about half the island’s normal population — have come to help.
They handle much of the care that relatives of the missing receive in Jindo as they wait for divers to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones from the wreckage of the Sewol.
Some scrub toilets and bathroom floors at the gym where families sleep, keeping the amenities practically spotless. A man walks around with a huge sign saying “I will wash clothes for you.”
They cook huge pots of hot kimchi soup, distribute blankets, towels and toiletries, pick up trash and sweep the grounds. Turkish volunteers offer kebabs, turning on spits. One truck distributes homemade tofu, another pizza.
Cab drivers from Ansan, where the high school students who make up more than 80 percent of the missing and dead were from, provide free rides to and from Jindo, a five-hour drive that would normally run up a fare of 280,000 won ($270).
“It’s time to help those who are mourning. Giving up several days of work is nothing,” driver Ahn Dae-soo said.
Lim Jang-young, a 58-year-old owner of a Japanese restaurant, came to Jindo from the southern city of Daejon to cook traditional beef soup for family members, other volunteers and journalists. He temporarily closed his restaurant to come help because he said he cannot focus on his business while he worries about the victims and their families.
A man who was eating his soup “showed me a picture of a girl, his daughter, and started crying. I couldn’t resist crying with him,” said Lim, a father of three.
Hundreds of people, many from aid groups, private companies, churches and other organizations, mostly wearing green and blue clothing, pack roads lined with white tents near Paengmok port and a gym on the island, offering soup, kimchi, rice, hamburgers, taxi services, cellphone battery charging, laundry services, medicine, energy drinks, psychiatric help and daily necessities like underwear, socks, nail clippers, cotton swabs and toothbrushes.
Park Seung-ki, a spokesman for the government task force, said Sunday that more than 16,200 people have come on their own or with nearly 730 organizations. About 690,000 aid items such as food, bottled water, blankets and clothes have also arrived in Jindo since the sinking, Park said.
Volunteers say they’re asked to refrain from “provoking” family members and to avoid smiling, taking commemorative photos or starting conversations. Volunteers are also asked to be patient and understanding even if victims’ relatives become angry, according to a civic organization tasked with handling volunteers.
Lee Sung-tae, secretary-general for the civic organization, says people aged 23 or younger are often not allowed to volunteer because of worries they may remind family members, mostly parents of missing high school students, of their own children. Older volunteers who happen to look young are given work that keeps them away from the families of the missing students. Lee said his organization is now asking groups to stay away because there are already too many volunteers.
Kim Byung-jo, 52, and Kim Yong-su, 46, drove 2½ hours from the southern city of Suncheon to clean toilets and shower rooms at a gym where the families, both men and women, sleep on mattresses under bright fluorescent lights.
“It’s totally different from when I watched this on TV,” said Kim Yong-su, a trailer driver. “I’ve become really solemn. I can’t really express how I’m feeling.”