International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Book Review
Daughter - A Memoir of Survival in Burma and the West
by Zoya Phan with Damien Lewis
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
David Calleja review
survivor from the Burmese juntas war against its own people
shows that courage is displayed in multiple forms. Zoya Phans
account is a double-edged sword, reflecting fear and hope in the
your walking trail to school being littered with landmines. Education
is restricted because you spend your life on the run between villages,
living in jungles and refugee camps to avoid mortar shelling. Chronic
food shortages reduce you to eating grass roots. Your school in
a "new village" has been rebuilt for the fourth time because
soldiers who want you dead burnt it down on the previous three occasions.
All that shelters you and your family is a plastic sheet hung over
a tree in the forest.
You can never go
back to your village because there is none to return to, and you are
stateless, meaning that no country to know you. Then when you finally
manage to seek asylum in a safe country, you live with the constant
fear of being deported because you call for peace, freedom and democracy.
For individuals fleeing for safety from Burma, this is a normal life.
Zoya Phan, a young woman from Karen State, is lucky enough to relay
her account where many others cannot, and her story speaks for thousands
of people who have lived through similar horrors.
Named after a Russian resistance fighter, Zoya is the face for Burma
Campaign in the United Kingdom. She and her family have foregone stability
to prevent deportation to Burma, where the military regimes welcoming
committee guarantees only bullets and pre-marked graves. She has seen
hell engulf her previously unharmed village with her own eyes from childhood
to teenage years, and has carried the message to act decisively throughout
her adult life.
This girl from the jungle born to resistance fighters has forced a re-think
in British foreign policy towards Burma and the effectiveness of aid.
Her sincere honesty has roused the average Briton and political elites,
and is given the respect warranted for any conflict survivor.
Zoya was born to fight. Her parents, committed resistance fighters,
inspired her to be tough yet compassionate. Raised by a father who spent
time away from home as part of his duties as President of the Karen
National Union (KNU), Zoya relays the importance of seeking peace without
compromise in her eloquent dialogue. Equally as influential is her mother,
a battle hardened soldier, who tells of skinning pythons so that her
platoon could eat and shows her resourcefulness by engaging in agricultural
activities and animal rearing. The constant message here is Zoya is
the value of sticking together as a family unit.
Amidst the terror lies a humbling and wonderful picture of simple childhood;
making mudpies on the floor of village school classrooms, the simplicity
of receiving stationery goods, and treasured family moments that she
wishes would never end, even in a time of war.
We get to examine the close kinship developed with community members
that rejoices and mourns together. Sometimes tragedy gives rise to a
rare chance to educate the world about the horrors of war-related trauma.
The fear of expulsion from Thailand and the United Kingdom stalks her
at virtually every corner. Many of us cannot readily relate to this
unless we have traced the same steps. But sometimes, life hands us a
slice of good fortune to grasp and there is a chance to make a difference.
Zoyas moment appears at a rally on Daw Aung San Suu Kyis
60th birthday in London. Dressed in traditional attire, her brief but
powerful speech put the spotlight back on events in her homeland again
and makes BBC headlines.
Although Zoyas book does not have the brutal impact of Loung Ungs
First They Killed My Father, you do not have to survive being
a child soldier to be the driving force of change. There is no substitute
in the English language for having your natural life progression interrupted
by the horrors of conflict, as Zoya painstakingly recalls upon discovering
a dead body floating in a river:
His back was shattered, as he had been forced to work
as a porter, carrying heavy loads to build barricades for the military
junta...once the man could lift or move no more, after numerous beatings,
he was thrown into the river...."
One aspect that the Karen and all ethnic minorities in Burma never lose
is the tendency to laugh as a means of coping with hardship. It is impossible
not to smile at this lady whose first experience with putting on lipstick
differs wildly from using vitamin pills, encountering escalators for
the first time or struggling with other modern conveniences such as
an electric plug.
While Little Daughter is an obvious collectors item for
all people with an interest in the tragic events affecting ordinary
civilians in Burma, readers will find themselves drawn to a woman who
speaks from the heart and shows maturity beyond her years. Like Kim
Phúc, the Vietnam Wars most famous anti-war icon, has been
saying for many years. We all yearn for the right to live in a peaceful
Zoya Phan, the woman from the jungle is one brave warrior and an excellent
advocate to call for an end the genocide in Burma.
© David Calleja August 14th 2009
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