A Stolen Soul

The 5-year-old girl with the almond-shaped face and solemn brown eyes looked to the sky as the sirens screamed over Inchon, Korea.

Yong Cha Han listened for the buzzing plane engines and the whistling bombs as her mother wrapped Yong and her older brother Wonhee in heavy blankets.

''Go!'' Hak Ye Han shouted to her children. ''Hurry. Hurry. Run!''

Yong clutched the hand of her brother and raced for the caves carved into the hillsides near their home. There, in the dark shelters, they huddled with other children and waited for their mother.

In the blackness, Yong could not see the faces of those pressed near her. She saw only the whites of their eyes. She shivered as the sirens wailed.

It was 1945 and World War II was drawing to a close, but for Yong the turmoil in her life was just beginning.

When the war ended, Yong, already a timid, quiet girl, withdrew even more into herself. As the next few years passed, she spoke little. Her silences worried her mother, who had high expectations for her children.

The Hans had been blessed with good fortune and were considered wealthy among their Inchon neighbors. They lived on a sprawling complex that had once been an orphanage. On one corner of the grounds they ran a small flour mill.

Yong's parents schooled their son and daughter in the teachings of Confucius. They taught Yong that if she lived an honorable life, she would be rewarded with a chance to be reborn.

Yong also learned lessons about her soul from her grandmother. Just as Yong had the power to taint her own soul, the old woman told her, her spirit's destiny could be harmed by others.

The soul of a person killed by another would not rest until the murderer was caught and punished, her grandmother explained. If the killer was never found, the victim's soul suffered eternally, trapped in limbo between Heaven and Hell.

Her grandmother told Yong about a young girl from Inchon who was stabbed and left on the road to die. The girl's death was never avenged, and her spirit haunted the streets of Inchon for years afterward.

The fate of that girl's tortured soul troubled Yong. But at the age of 10, Yong had little time to anguish about the afterlife. Just before her 11th birthday, the Korean War broke out and the sirens screamed once more over Inchon.

On June 25, 1950, an emergency radio message warned South Koreans that North Korea had invaded. Within a few days, the North Koreans were expected to march to Inchon Harbor.

Most of the men in the city, including Yong's father, feared they would be seen as a threat by the oncoming Communists. Believing he'd be executed if he stayed in the city, Hak Sik Han hugged his wife and his children and fled. He promised to return when it was safe.

Weeks after her father left, Yong watched North Korean soldiers gather on the street outside her home. From her bedroom window, she listened to the soldiers shout orders to a dozen men who had chosen to stay in the city. The soldiers bound their prisoners, strung their hands together and ordered them to stand in a semicircle.

Suddenly the North Koreans raised their rifles, and shots rang out. One by one the men crumpled like broken dolls to the ground.

Yong saw their faces as they fell, their blood spilling onto the street.

She swallowed her screams and closed her eyes. Later that day, she was stricken with a fever and crawled into bed. Her mother fretted about her daughter, who lay still and silent for weeks.

Even after Yong's fever subsided, she remained mute, never telling her mother about the massacre.

''What is wrong?'' her mother asked. ''My child, she is too sensitive. She takes the war on all by herself.''

Over the next several months, Yong, her mother, her brother, and her baby sister Yong Im sought shelter from the falling bombs. Each day they walked three hours into the countryside to hide.

On these daily journeys, Yong carried her year-old sister on her back. Yong tried to comfort the tiny child, who clung to Yong, wide-eyed and trembling.

During the day they sat in fields, watching smoke rise over Inchon. Each night, in the darkness, they returned home.

One morning, before Yong and her family could head out on their daily journey, they heard the familiar buzz of plane engines, then the explosions.

''Get out! Run!'' her mother screamed.

Yong ran with her sister into the street. She heard a deafening blast and felt something sting her knee. It was shrapnel from a bomb. Before fleeing for safety, she turned to look one more time at her home. Flames flickered in the windows like yellow and green fingers. Black smoke billowed from the rooms where she had once slept and played.

Yong stood paralyzed by a terrifying symphony of screams, planes and explosions.

''This,'' she thought, ''must be the sound of Hell.''