I was in Seoul the first time I experienced the air raid sirens going off.
It scared the crap out of me, to be perfectly honest with you. I mean, there you are, strolling peacefully through the busy streets, minding your own business and getting used to the fact that, for the most part, you don’t have a clue what’s going on around you. It’s a nice day, you’re in South Korea, life is pretty good. And then, all of a sudden, the air is ripped apart by a sound that – in your short lifetime – you’ve only ever heard in war films and documentaries.
There can be no more chilling sound in the world than that of an air raid siren. It makes your heart stand still and then start pounding furiously. It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention, and the skin on your arms crawl with fear. I froze in utter terror in the middle of the street, images of those shaky black and white films playing on a loop in my head. Pictures of the aftermath of bombings… screams of women and children… tears and agony… all neatly punctuated with flashes of this guy’s face…
…and concluding with a mental map that looked something like this:
I don’t think I can quite express my terror at that particular moment. Oh, bloody hell, North Korea’s attacking us! is not a thought I ever expected to have in my life. Life is full of little twists and turns like that.
So anyway, all the traffic stopped, and within a few moments (which seemed like hours) the sound of police and fire engine sirens arrived on the scene to compete with the huge, echoing wail of the air raid siren. Men with flags and whistles appeared from nowhere, ensuring that all traffic came to a complete standstill. Jets roared overhead. Jeeps containing armed soldiers patrolled the streets, which were rapidly emptying. The air raid siren stopped and was replaced by eerie silence that did not match the usually chaotic streets of the city’s capital.
Beyond terrified, I figured I should follow the crowd, and looked around me with an expression similar to the one a dog gets when you tell him it’s time for his bath. A kindly-looking man touched my arm. Don’t be worry, he told me, is not bomb. Is… um… practice. Every month, we practice.
A drill, in other words. Honestly, I nearly fell at the man’s feet and wept.
Apparently (now that I am completely educated and informed about the matter, never again to be scared witless by it), South Korea has a civil defence drill (AKA the nuclear bomb drill) once a month. The air raid sirens sound, and all traffic must stop. People must evacuate the streets and take cover in buildings where possible. Drivers are actually supposed to leave their cars and go indoors, although I don’t think this is very strictly observed – especially since when I next experienced the drill, I was on a bus with a couple of dozen children on a field trip, and personally dreading the idea of safely evacuating the over-excited infants without losing any of them. Instead, the driver just turned off the engine and we sat there at the side of the road until we were given the signal that the drill was over.
It’s all very smooth and efficient and obviously a routine that is well-known by all South Koreans. But it does bring home the grim reality concerning our next door neighbours. I found this video on YouTube, taken in a town not far from my city. It gives a pretty good sense of what it’s like, from the kids in the playground taking cover, to the traffic moving off again at the second siren, and the people getting back on to the bus. I know you don’t have a knowledge of life here to compare it with, but take my word for it that the streets here are never that quiet and still!