Cai Haimao is a fragile, birdlike woman who gives the past a human face. Her face is captivating but the stories of her experiences during World War Two are harrowing.
She is 93, with 70-year-old scars she endured at the hands of the Japanese. She bears the pain of being kidnapped and kept as a “comfort woman,” at the age of 21 during WWII, but her suffering is yet to be recognised by them.
"I suffered so much," she told me. “They raped me repeatedly. All women living here then were raped by the Japanese. We were so scared. They went from door to door and took away every woman. It was so awful.There is no way to be compensated for this. So many men raped and attacked me. So many I can’t even remember. I hate the Japanese. They treated us so awfully. We were so scared of them. Not a single woman in my village was spared the suffering. They were inhumane."
While Chinese soldiers battled to recapture their land in 1941, Japanese invaders took her and thousands of others to be "comfort women” - sex slaves - in what became a military policy. A policy that the Japanese refute, but today, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to resolve the “comfort women” issue with South Korea as soon as possible. Hundreds of thousands of South Korean women suffered in a similar way to Chinese women, like Cai Haimao.
Cai fell pregnant to one officer, but the shame of giving birth to the enemy’s child was too great. She escaped, but left the baby to die in the mountains near where her family lived.
However, independent research says that number was significantly higher, around 4-500,000, and girls were often imprisoned for up to 2 years.
We visited Shanxii Province in North East China, where 127 women were held captive. Only 13 are still alive.
Zhang Shuangbing is a 50-year-old man who lives in the region, and has made it his life’s work to try and get compensation for them from the Japanese, but the very existence of these women is bitterly contested by them.
Throughout my afternoon with Cai Haimao she kept holding my hand and showing me her thin, almost translucent skin.
"Look at you. Look at your arm in comparison to mine. It’s too awful to look at my skin. I am dying. Look how I thin I am. My legs don’t work anymore. I can’t walk. I am counting the days. I am going to die soon."
Cai Haimao’s tale preserves the lives of ordinary women who withstood a brutal time, and who’ve been ignored for seven decades, but the window for them to tell their story is closing fast.