Together with a UNICEF emergency response team, I visited the community of Kwang Yang Ri (village), Yonsa county, which was hard hit by floods that have affected northern DPR Korea in recent weeks. The roads had been badly damaged and we arrived just one day after access was restored.
Here, we met Ri Jong Sun, an 84-year-old woman living next door to Kwang Yang higher middle school. “I’ve lived here for the last 50 years,” she told me. “This is the biggest disaster I’ve seen in my life. Eight of my neighbours’ houses were swept away.”
Jong Sun described the incident quietly, but I could tell she was still in shock by the way she gripped my hands tightly throughout our conversation.
Jong Sun was evacuated from her home just in time, together with her neighbours, but was shocked to see that there was no sign of the adjacent houses. Most of the school buildings had also been swept away and the floodwaters had deposited a huge amount of debris across the school playground in front of her house.
“I’m really thankful that UNICEF has reached us,” she said. “We’ve been totally cut off for the last three weeks.”
From Jong Sun’s home, we walked to Kwang Yang higher middle school, around 100 metres away. There we met the school principal, Ri Son Chol, 52, who had been working there for 17 years.
Son Chol looked anxious. He told us about a landslide caused by heavy rain which had blocked the river that runs next to the school. The overflow gate of the dam was opened to release the excess water. “Together with the landslide, this washed away the exterior wall of the main school building, destroyed several classrooms, the indoor gymnasium and the entire primary school building,” he said.
A Yonsa county official, Kim Kyom Chol, told us that out of 81 people who lost their lives in the county during the floods, 26 were children. There were also 25 people missing, of which eight were children.
Thankfully, none of the Kwang Yang schoolchildren had been reported dead or missing. However, out of 450 school children, only 300 were attending lessons after the floods. Some children have been relocated with their families in temporary shelters, while others are reluctant to come to school without uniforms, shoes and bags which have been washed away.
Other children have restarted their schooling, but around 50 children are sharing small classrooms due to the shortage of available spaces. “Some classrooms have no desks or chairs, so the children sit on the floor to study,” Ri Son Chol said. “What is worse is that they have to study in cold classrooms without roofs or walls. And winter is coming.”
Oyunsaihan Dendevnorov is UNICEF Representative in DPR Korea