BBC News

Soldiers move in as locals evacuate Yeonpyeong island

By Damian Grammaticas
BBC News, Yeonpyeong island, South Korea

image captionThe South Korean government says it is sending more troops and guns to protect frontline islands like Yeonpyeong against North Korean attacks

The seas are rough and unforgiving on the journey from South Korea's mainland to Yeonpyeong island.

For two hours our boat pitched and rolled. Freezing spray whipped around the sides of the ferry.

These are treacherous waters, disputed by North and South Korea.

The notional border, the Northern Limit line, is not recognised by North Korea, which is why Pyongyang feels justified launching attacks on what it views as provocations here.

With the sun low in the sky behind it, Yeonpyeong looked tranquil enough as we approached. It is little more than a rocky outcrop.

Military activity

In the distance you can see the outline of North Korea, just eight miles across the water.

But as you draw closer you can see fortifications sprouting from the hillside. The buzz of military activity is everywhere as South Korea moves to shore up its forces on the island.

A line of South Korean gunboats was anchored just offshore when we arrived.

Helicopters whirred overhead. On the pier stood a squad of men from the coastguard's Special Sea Assault Team, dressed in dark fatigues with the letters SSAT emblazoned on their baseball caps. Soldiers in camouflage uniforms were heaving equipment onto trucks.

image captionDozens of houses were destroyed in the artillery bombardment

Moving in the opposite direction are the few civilians still on Yeonpyeong. The car park at the quayside is full of vehicles abandoned there by their owners.

We saw cars full of people arriving at the port to board the ferry out.

Entering the village you see the first signs of the damage caused by North Korea's bombardment this week: a two-storey house with its windows smashed, then another.

I was shown an impact crater a couple of feet wide and a foot deep. A few metres away lay a car, tossed on its side, crushed by the blast.

Abandoned houses

Shrapnel had peppered the wall of an office building nearby. I was told that a rocket tube about four feet long had been left sticking out of the ground. South Korean soldiers apparently came and took it away on Wednesday.

The rockets fired by North Korea were indiscriminate. Some of the closely-packed houses are untouched, then there is a line of three that have been completely gutted. A rocket must have landed right in the middle, as only skeletons of the buildings remain.

Twisted metal sheets lie on the ground along with charred wooden beams. All the houses nearby have their windows blown out.

And everywhere are the signs of the hasty escape the islanders have made.

In one house the glass door is broken, on the stove sit some pots, shoes are strewn on the floor. In another house, teacups have been left on a table. And outside yet another home are an abandoned children's tricycle and a canoe.

Like 'frying popcorn'

In her house we found 57-year-old Lee Kyeong-seon. She told me she had heard the military exercises being staged by South Korean forces on Tuesday, but then heard an explosion nearby.

"I ran outside, and I saw three houses next door had been hit and were on fire. As I headed back to my house another rocket hit another neighbour's home. I knew something must be wrong, our soldiers couldn't make a mistake like this."

image captionMost of the 1,300 residents have evacuated the island since the shelling

She told me that after the first salvo landed, announcements were made on the village's public loudspeakers urging everyone to get out, so she ran to the harbour.

But as soon as she got there, more rockets flew overhead.

"That was when the second group of rockets landed," she said. "We jumped down behind the sea wall as that was the only way we could survive. Luckily they didn't hit the cars parked there or there would have been a big explosion. The rockets flew just over the wall."

And she continued: "Everything went quiet so we climbed back up and then I saw some more rockets. As they struck the ground it sounded like the noise of frying popcorn: bam bam bam."

Lee Kyeong-seon says she believes South Korea needs to hit back hard for North Korea's aggression.

But she says she is so angry at what she believes is her government's failure to take a tough line that, even though all civilians are being urged to leave Yeonpyeong, she is staying put, for now.