Text Size
  Home  |  Contact Author  

Little Daughter/Undaunted

by Zoya Phan & Damien Lewis

Little Daughter book coverZoya Phan was born in the remote jungles of Burma, to the Karen tribe. For decades the Karen have been fighting Burma’s military junta, those behind the bloody October 2007 crackdown on the Saffron Revolution of Buddhist monks. She is a child of the revolution - her mother a guerrilla soldier, her father a freedom activist. Zoya’s was a typical Karen childhood. She lived in a bamboo hut on stilts by the Moi River; she hunted for edible fungi with her much-loved adopted brother, Say Say.

Many Karen are Christian or Buddhist, but Zoya’s parents were animist, venerating the spirits of forest, river and moon. Upon her birth Zoya’s father buried her umbilical cord on a sacred mountain, and prayed for her destiny. Convinced she would play a key role in the fight to free Burma, he named her Zoya after a Russian partisan who was executed by the Nazis. Her early years were blissfully removed from the war. Her playmates were blessed with magical names: Tee Ser Paw – Sweet Water Flower; Toh Mu Na – Nightingale; and Lah Ka Paw – Moonlight. Whenever her mother couldn’t find Zoya she knew she’d be out running and dancing with her best friend, Moonlight. But at age thirteen Zoya’s childhood was shattered as the Burmese army attacked.

With their house in flames, Zoya and her family fled by canoe across the Moi River. So began two terrible years of running from guns, as Zoya joined thousands of refugees hiding in the jungle. Her family scattered, her brothers deeper into the war, Zoya to a Thai refugee camp. So sick was she when she got there that doctors were barely able to save her life. A gifted pupil, Zoya now had to care for her ailing mother. Incredibly, Zoya went on to win a scholarship to study for a degree, but she was torn between study and caring for her dying mother. Still her enemies pursued her, and in 2005 she fled to the UK and claimed asylum. Asked by friends to attend a ‘free Burma’ march, she was plucked from the crowd to appear on the BBC, the first of countless interviews with the world’s media. In a miraculous fulfilment of her father’s vision she became the face of a nation enslaved, rubbing shoulders with presidents and film stars.

This is the fairytale story of the girl from the jungle who became an icon of a suffering land. Yet it ends deep in the nightmare, for six months after she started work on this book the Burmese junta assassinated her beloved father. Zoya remains unbroken still: whilst her father may have been killed, she knows that they will never kill his dream.

Media & Press

"Little Daughter is a miracle powerfully and neatly contained in book form … It is a compelling read: suspenseful, illuminating, filled with as many sweet moments as it is with searing descriptions of the civil war." The Globe & Mail

"Her memoir of survival is as much about lost arcadia as it is about poverty. Most of her childhood was spent in blissful ignorance of the military junta’s encroachment on her homeland." The Telegraph

"Zoya’s story is one of fulfillment in the teeth of terrifying odds. Biut the endless war grinds on." The Independent

"Mixed in with warm anecdotes – of her smuggling mangoes and creating mud slides – are the grim reminders of the horror that begins to invade her young life." Sky News

"A cleanly written testimony to an unending apocalypse." The Financial Times


No one told us, but the battle for Sleeping Dog Mountain was a crucial one. If the ridgeline was taken then little would stand between us and the might of the Burmese military machine. Even so, we knew the situation was serious. Villagers were being asked to help with the defence of Sleeping Dog Mountain, the main task being to carry food and ammunition up to the mountaintop positions.

It was a voluntary thing, and we all wanted to help. Much to Slone's annoyance he wasn't allowed to, because he was still in primary school. But Bwa Bwa was a strapping sixteen-year-old, and she volunteered right away. I wanted to go with her, but I doubted whether my mother would let me.

'Are you certain you want to?' my mother asked Bwa Bwa, for the umpteenth time.

'Yes, I am,' Bwa Bwa replied.

'You really, really want to do this?' my mother queried.

'Of course! My friends are going and so should I.'

Eventually, my mother gave in, but there was no convincing her when it came to me.

'You're too small, Little Daughter,' she said. 'If anything happens you won't be able to run away.'

'But Bwa Bwa can go, so why not me?'

'Bwa Bwa is older and bigger, and she can look after herself. But you, my Little Daughter, you're too small.'

I didn't think it was very fair, but there was no way around my mother. I was worried for Bwa Bwa, but I was still annoyed that I couldn't go myself. The students were divided into those who would carry the food to the ridgeline, and those who would cook for the Karen soldiers lower down the mountain.

Bwa Bwa took the more dangerous job. She would be carrying food parcels wrapped in banana leaves to the front-line troops. Most of the men in the village volunteered to fight.

On her first mission Bwa Bwa was away for several days. My mother was eaten up with worry, especially as we could hear the faint boom of explosions from up on the ridge and see the occasional enemy aircraft. My father told me that the Burmese military had launched a major offensive, bombing from the air and shelling from the ground. Karen villagers were fleeing from the area, as the military were targeting civilians. Most hid in the jungle without food or shelter, but a good number were forced across the border into Thailand as refugees.

Despite what my father told me, I still thought that the fighting was a long way away and that it would never reach us. I overheard my parents talking about foreign oil companies propping up the regime, by investing in Burma. The military leaders purchased new weapons and funded their war against us using money provided by these investors. By contrast our weapons were old and worn; some even dating back to the Second World War. When I heard my parents talking about such things I didn't fully understand. This was adult's business and I was still a schoolchild.

Bwa Bwa found her volunteer mission exhausting. It took a day to walk up to the ridgeline, and almost as long to come back again. She returned hot and dirty and tired, and with her head full of horrific images of the war. It was so high on that ridgeline that she had to gasp for air, and was only ever able to carry a small load. She had been so thirsty during the climb, but was determined to get the food to the soldiers, for she knew they were defending our very lives.

She returned from a subsequent food-carrying mission with very sad news. Saw Happy (Mr Happy) – a young man from our village who had volunteered to fight – had been killed. He had taken up his gun in a position on the front line of the battle. It seemed impossible to us – he had only been up there a matter of weeks - but Saw Happy was dead. His was one of the many lives snuffed out in the battle for Sleeping Dog Mountain.

Not long after that the war lurched ever closer, becoming a very real part of our lives. It was September 2004, and one Sunday the church pastor gave an unusually impassioned sermon. His name was Pu Ghay Dweh – Grandfather Handsome – but he was a very stern figure. His house was right next to the school playing field, yet he hated children playing there. Bwa Bwa used to joke that we only ever went to church out of fear of the pastor!

He urged us all to pray as hard as we could, for the Karen faced a severe challenge. The military junta was trying to use religion to divide us, he said, and we had to pray for unity. Religion was the one thing that might split the resistance asunder. Bwa Bwa and I didn't really understand what he was going on about. As far as we could see the greatest challenge we faced was to defend Sleeping Dog Mountain.

But unbeknown to us, tensions between Buddhists and Christians within the Karen resistance were rising. The first most people knew about it was when some Karen soldiers started attacking boats at the confluence of the Salween and Moi rivers, at Thu Mwe Hta village. It was about an hour's boat ride from us so not that far away at all. Things quickly escalated. The group declared themselves to be a splinter movement, and gave themselves the name Democratic Karen Buddhist Army – the DKBA. They allied themselves with the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) junta.

We children knew little about this at the time, and understood even less. All we did know was that our father was one of those allocated the task of meeting the DKBA, to try to defuse the problem. We were used to him going off to front-line areas on various missions, so we thought little of it when he disappeared this time.

My father had been away for two weeks when my mother started to sicken. The injury caused to her foot when we had fled from the elephants had never really healed properly. Now it flared up again, the old wound looking angry and inflamed. In fact, my mother was worried sick for my father, and her health was suffering with it. He was only supposed to have been gone a couple of days. She'd kept it from us, but the negotiating team – my father included – had been taken captive.

For the first time ever I witnessed my mother sitting around listlessly and doing nothing. It wasn't like her at all, and I put it down to her sickness. I made her hot Burmese tea and placed a large stone in the cooking fire to warm. When it was nice and hot, I wrapped it in a cloth and gave it to her so she could hold it under her blanket and keep warm. My mother appreciated these gestures, but nothing seemed to lift her spirits.

She became feverish with worry. Gradually, she was no longer able to hide her fears. We seemed to have a constant string of visitors to the house, and she kept asking if any had news of my father. Our neighbours started coming to spend the night with us, during which time they prayed with us for our father's well-being. In fact, they were acting exactly as they would have done if a family member had died, and as we had done when Moonlight's father was killed.

As the days past we learned fragments of the truth ourselves: our father had been captured along with his fellow negotiators; he was being held in a prison beneath the monastery at Thu Mwe Hta; our own soldiers might have to go in and rescue them. My mother tried to convince us that that he would be fine, even as she was sitting there looking so drawn and consumed by worry.

It was my brother Say Say's unit that had been sent into the jungles around Thu Mwe Hta to launch a rescue, should one be necessary. They were in position to assault the monastery where my father was being held. But the DKBA had forced local people to move into the area surrounding the monastery, using them as a human shield against attack. The KNU commander decided that the risk of killing so many innocent people in an assault on the monastery would be too great. It was such a difficult and dark time for us: my mother was ill and plagued by worry; my father was being held captive; and my brother was in a unit tasked with the rescue assault. No one could find the courage to tell my mother, but word had gone around the village that my father had been executed. This seemed quite likely, as the DKBA often executed KNU leaders.

Eventually, one member of the negotiating team was released. They hadn't all been killed after all. My mother went to see him. My father was alive, he told her, and being held captive in an underground prison. There was still hope.

A few days later, a boat docked at the riverside below the village. All of a sudden I caught sight of my father walking up the path towards us. I screamed out to everyone that Daddy was home, and we all went rushing down to meet him.

'Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!' I yelled, as I threw myself into his arms. 'You're home! You're home!'

My father smiled at me, weakly, and ruffled my hair. We were surrounded by people talking all at once, as half the village seemed to have gathered to greet him. Whatever he had been through over the past few weeks what struck me most was how weak and exhausted he was looking. People crammed into our living room as my father sat cross-legged on the bamboo floor. I may have been a 13-year-old girl, but I still sat right on his lap as he went about telling his story.

'We went to listen to their demands and see how we could settle things amicably,' my father began. 'There was a monk who although not a formal leader of the DKBA, was the mastermind behind them. We soon realized that he had been sent by the regime to cause trouble. He had been up to the front-line areas asking the Buddhist Karen soldiers why there was no pagoda there. He said they needed to build a big, white pagoda to worship at, right where they were.'

'Obviously they couldn't do that, as it would have given their position away,' my father continued. 'But the monk told the soldiers that this was religious prejudice, and proved that only Christians mattered to the Karen leaders. You know how people respect the monks, and this was the start of all the trouble. Underneath the monastery at Thu Mwe Hta they'd built up a secret arms store. The monk called on the soldiers to revolt, and some of them joined him—'

My father paused for a second. 'When we arrived they arrested us, and placed us in an underground dungeon, beneath the monastery. I tried to talk to the DKBA leaders, but they just told me they were going to do whatever the monk told them to. Most of those in the DKBA were just innocents – simple soldiers who believed every word the monk told them.'

My father was kept in the pitch black of the dungeon as his captors took away his fellow KNU leaders and executed them. At one point they had put a gun to his head and acted as if they were going to kill him. My father was certain that this was an operation engineered by the junta's military intelligence. In Burma Buddhist monks were universally revered, so using a monk as an agent was a clever move.

'The regime has a big and active intelligence service, and they had set this up well,' my father concluded. 'But we hope that the innocents – the easily led soldiers and villagers – will see that they've been misled and come back to us. The resistance – Christian, Buddhist and animist – has to be united, for only in unity can there be victory.'

My father had tried to end his story with a touch of hope, to give the villagers something to feel happier about. In spite of what he had been through, he tried to give them something to believe in. But he looked drained and fatigued as I had never seen him before. As I sat on his lap listening to him I was worried and angry at what had happened.

As I cuddled up to him I realized that I wasn't quite as small as I used to be. I could tell that I was tiring him, and eventually I got down and sat at his feet gazing up at his tired features. I realized then how much I loved him and how good it was to have him back with us alive and reasonably well.

And for the first time I realized how special he was to others, as well. For me he had always just been Daddy, but now I could see how widely he was loved and respected. He was not just my father, he was a leader that people looked to for hope and inspiration. I was so proud of him.

During the weeks that he had been kept from us it was as if my heart was breaking. On the day that my father returned to us it was like sunshine flooding back into my life. It was a miracle that his life had been spared, and for the first time in ages I saw my mother smile again. But there was to be little respite; the war was closing in fast now.

A few days after my father's return the village headman rang the alarm on the village square. He announced that schools were to be closed immediately and until further notice. Everyone was being put on a war footing. People were advised not to go out after dark, and if they spotted anyone moving around at night then they were to report it to him immediately.

Because we couldn't go to school any more it made sense to go and stay with our parents in the Manerplaw house. Sleeping Dog Mountain was clearly visible from there, and on some days we could see the eerie spectacle of the enemy aircraft launching their attacks. I felt fear gripping my heart.

Ever since the attack on Karen Resistance Day our mother had made us stay in the shelter whenever we could hear or see the planes. Sometimes we were stuck in the shelter all day long, wishing we could be playing out in the sunshine. We'd play our games but most of the time we were very bored, remembering the days when we could climb trees and splash in the river. Life would be like this for the rest of our time in Manerplaw, which unknown to us was rapidly running out.

They would come several at a time, circling above the ridge like sleek black hawks. Then they would dive and release their bombs, and there would be the tiny puffs of the explosions below. I'd always ask my mother which area it was they were attacking. Often it was the positions right on the ridgeline itself, but sometimes it would be Karen villages. I couldn't imagine what it must be like to be a villager being dive-bombed like that – yet I was soon to find out.

The first time the aircraft came to drop their bombs on us I was in the loo. It was an afternoon, and by now we were used to hearing the drone of the enemy bombers circling in the sky. But all of a sudden there was a series of horrible, piercing screaming noises right above us, and the aircraft dived to attack. Each scream ended in the massive boom of an explosion – so close that the air shook and the bamboo walls of the toilet rattled with the shock waves.

As the terrible noise died away, it was replaced by my mother's screaming. 'In the shelter! Everyone in the shelter, now!'

I bolted from the loo and sprinted for the shelter, which was on the far side of the house. I was the last to reach it – Slone, Bwa Bwa and my mother were there before me – and I could hear my mother desperately calling for me.

'Po Mu Sit! Po Mu Sit! Little Daughter!' she was crying. 'Where are you?!'

We stayed in the shelter all that afternoon, as the aircraft roared around in the skies above. I wasn't crying: I was more struck dumb with fear. I was so scared I wouldn't even venture out for a pee and had to bottle it up inside. As dusk descended over Manerplaw the sinister drone of the aircraft died away and we decided it was safe to venture out. My mother had left already to prepare the evening meal, and we were bored with crouching in the darkness trying to play the stone game.

When my father came home that evening he told us how he had been walking on one of the paths through Manerplaw when the planes had attacked. He had no choice but to dive into a nearby patch of 'water bush' – thick reeds that grow in the riverbeds – to take cover. When the bombing was over he'd emerged covered in mud from head to toe. He told us this story in an effort to lighten the mood, but we could tell that he was worried.

After eating a subdued meal my father told my mother how worried he had been. Bombs had fallen all around Manerplaw, and no one doubted that the aircraft would return to attack us again. My father urged my mother to be careful, and for us all to get in the shelter at the first hint of an attack.

'The situation just keeps getting worse and worse,' my father remarked, quietly. 'You must take good care of the children. Who knows where it will all end.'

A few days later I had a wonderful and unexpected surprise: Say Say came home on leave, together with one of his friends. I had missed him so much and I was so happy to see him. We were sitting as a family having lunch, when suddenly the heart-stopping scream of a diving aircraft drowned out our chatting and laughter. Before we could even move the first bomb exploded with a massive boom!

In an instant Bwa Bwa and I were dashing through a door in the side of the house and had dived into the safety of the dark shelter. Say Say was the last to reach the shelter, but by then it was full. My mother kept trying to drag him in, but there was no way he could fit. Meanwhile the aircraft kept circling overhead and howling down upon us, each bomb shaking the ground terribly.

Finally, the noise of the aircraft died away to silence. It was then that we started to tease Say Say about only ever getting his head inside the shelter.

'What's Elder Brother thinking of?' Bwa Bwa demanded. 'He thinks that even if a bomb falls on his bum he'll be okay, 'cause his head's inside!'

In spite of our fear, we all laughed. I poked my head outside, and the first thing I caught sight of was a smoking crater on the beach below the house. There was another just up the hill, right in the midst of my father's flower garden. No wonder the explosions had sounded to close – they had been!

We had seen war movies featuring bombing, on the video at the village headman's house, but this was completely different. The scream of the diving aircraft had crashed into my ears, possessing my head, and piercing right to my heart.

When my father came home that evening he was angered by the indiscriminate nature of the attack. The pilots weren't even trying to hit military targets; they were trying to kill and maim civilians, and by doing so spread their terror. As my mother and father discussed the day's events, Say Say and his friend went out to inspect the bomb craters.

A few minutes later they returned with the tail fins of two bombs. Each was bright red in colour and about the size of an adult's hand, with four fins splayed out from the centre. They had a horrible, burning smell about them. As we inspected them I became more and more fearful. Seeing these carefully engineered steel bomb parts really brought it home somehow.

I suddenly thought: 'This is real; it is really happening to us for real.'

My parents spoke long into the evening in hushed tones. The following morning my mother sat us down for a talk. She told us that we had to pack a bag with some clothes and our important possessions, in case we had to run. She tried to reassure us that it was only 'in case'. My brothers and sisters and I loved our home, and we just tried to convince ourselves that we would never have to run away.

I had a little black rucksack and into this I packed my two good dresses, one blanket, a small mirror that I used for applying the Tha Na Kah cream, and my school pens and notebooks. I grabbed my few family photos: one of me at four months old; another of me with Bwa Bwa, standing in front of our house; and one or two group photos of the family. And that was it; my bag was packed. I just hoped and prayed I would never need to use it.

After I had packed my bag I told my mother how scared I was. 'Why do we have to be ready to run? Is that really what's going to happen to us?'

My mother tried to reassure me. 'Little Daughter, we'll be all right. I understand why you're scared, but we will get through this. Whatever happens, we'll be together and we'll get through it.

Her words were a comfort to me. I still didn't understand how serious things were for us. But that night I had a horrible dream. I was coming home from school and as I walked towards the village I saw a huge fire. As I got closer I realized it was our house that was burning. I ran and ran to try to get to the house, but I could never reach it. The harder I tried the more it seemed to keep moving away from me.

I woke up with a start. I sat bolt upright in fear. It was so vivid that I wondered for a second if our house was burning for real. First thing in the morning I told my mother about it. She told me not to worry. It was only a dream and nothing like that would ever happen to us.

But we Karen believe in foresight and the prescience of dreams. And despite my mother's comforting words, the atmosphere in our house was tense now. Everyone was worried. Even the trees, the river and the very earth seemed worried. When we went into the forest we found it quiet and brooding, as if the trees were waiting for something bad to happen.

It was the calm before the storm.