Watching Laura Ling and Euna Lee step off the plane this morning seemed like a scene from a movie. It had all the drama – two young girls, after 140 days in captivity in the rogue nation of North Korea, rescued by President Clinton, running into the warm embraces and tears of their families. Two women looking at their husbands with soulful gratitude and endearing love, holding their tearful parents, a little girl hugging her mom to welcome her home.
In mid March, when my brother called me to say that it seemed that Laura, one of his dearest friends, had been captured in N. Korea while shooting a documentary, he sounded despondent. There were very few details, but Lisa Ling, Laura’s sister and also a close friend of Gotham’s, had a dreaded sense of panic. Days, weeks, then months passed with little news and no contact. Then a meeting with the Swedish Ambassador, a letter, a phone call - an agonizing and painful process that tortured the girl’s families.
Despite my blogs about them, I have to admit that I am personally not close to Laura Ling or Euna Lee. However, my brother’s deep-rooted friendship with Laura has seen each other through work, weddings, and life changes. Through the years, whenever I have met either Laura or Lisa, and as I have watched their stories and heard about their passion and compassion from my brother, I have developed a sense of respect for the Ling sisters, two girls who have the heart, the brains and the courage to tell hard stories.
What jolted me to Laura’s plight in N. Korea though was watching the agony of a family try to survive without any knowledge or contact with their loved ones, and feeling helpless as world politics beyond their control – nuclear testing and a succession plan in N. Koreans – doomed them.
I had experienced just several hours of such panic when my brother was detained years ago. The thought of those hours extended to 140 days is still incomprehensible to me.
Watching Lisa Ling, an elder sister like myself, using all her resources and contacts to do anything she could, waiting every long day with bated breath, trying to keep her family strong and focused, desperately yearning to have her sister, her best friend, back home, was something I could relate to. When I heard about how Iain wrote to his wife every day, and how Michael had become a single dad overnight paralyzed with fear but not able to give in to it, I thought about my own husband in the same situation. At one of the vigils in LA, I could not even look at Laura’s mom – her pain was so overwhelming. I could only think of my mom in the same situation.
Through the ordeal, while my brother stayed in daily contact with Lisa, our family also got to know Euna’s husband, Michael Saldate, and little daughter, Hana. Hana and my daughter, Leela, are both the same age, so once again the connection was a natural one. Having never met Euna, I felt bonded to her – especially as Michael shared stories about how Euna’s messages and thoughts were with Hana in their limited correspondence. Of course, Euna was worrying about her daughters school admission – she was still a mom, even in captivity.
I think it was the realness of the families pain, combined with the goodness of the girls, that moved so many people to get involved in their release. As Laura stated today, and Lisa before her, the efforts by total strangers to spread the word about their plight was incredible. Even as the news and media let their story fade into the background, people still tweeted and facebooked and blogged and attended vigils that grew in size over the months. Each voice, each prayer, each intent, propelled the US government to stay focused on obtaining their release. Every action of support helped the families, and the secluded girls, maintain their resilience and resolve.
For the thousands of people who prayed for their release, who attended vigils around the world, who blogged and tweeted about it, who wrote letters to the girls or to the administration on their behalf, who signed petitions, the girls homecoming was a moment of victory. As one friend wrote to me, “Nice to see the good guys (or gals in this case) win.”
Yesterday, after hearing that Bill Clinton had left for North Korea, I emailed Michael to tell him that we should reschedule the play date for Leela and Hana that we were planning. He wrote back saying, "Wow, this moment that I have been waiting for is now about to arrive and I have no idea what to do, besides loving my wife." What a beautiful statement. And today, Lisa Ling tweeted, "Appreciating life in the most profound way." After such pain, undoubtedly love shines like never before.
In the coming weeks, as Laura and Euna’s story is shared, I am sure we will be astounded by the courage and strength of the human spirit. It is important that we remember as we hear their stories that there are countless others right now that are being held captive, with ambiguous charges branded upon them, separated from their families with no access to a true legal process, not only in North Korea, but also here in the United States. Laura and Euna's joyful reunion should be available to others just like them.
Today, my brother finally changed his intent from praying for Laura and Euna’s release to, “My intent is that Laura and Euna and their families live happily ever after.” For me, I close this story with new friends and immense gratitude and respect to a global community that showed a passion for peace, justice, and love.
One image from today will stay with me forever. Four year old, Hana clinging to her mom and just not letting go – no words were needed to capture the emotion that little Hana was feeling. No words can capture the love and joy of a family finally reunited.