Marina struggles to breathe, forcing air through the scarred skin of her sinuses and out her gaping mouth. The flesh just below her nose is bunched up, almost imperceptibly, in tiny folds, completely plugging one nostril and most of the other. It sounds almost as though she is breathing through a respirator. Though pictures taken soon after the attack showed her singed scalp, luxuriant black hair protrudes wildly from the hood she wears, even indoors, and I wonder if she is wearing a wig. Only later do I discover that the unconventional hairstyle blooming strangely from the top of her head, where the hair follicles survived, is aimed at hiding her missing ears. Surgeons have restored the basic features of a face and neck, albeit with mottled, patchy and irritated flesh, but the only features that look like they did before are those piercing pupils.
The presence of strangers in the simple one-bedroom apartment Marina shares with her brother and a friend in Boston makes her uncomfortable. Her eyes dart up and then back to her lap, as though she is bashful or ashamed. She doesn’t talk much and she sits, stiffly, in a floor-length dress with her hands on her lap, like a child playing the role of an adult. She rarely seems interested in talking. When she arrived in the U.S. a year earlier, she spoke no English and a year later she has learned only some basics. Her brother translates, but even in her native Khmer, she is hardly able to explain what she has gone through. With verbal communication limited, I try in vain to read her expressions. Most Cambodians smile effusively if they are happy or if they are afraid—a Khmer cultural trait that often perplexes foreigners—but Marina doesn’t smile at all, and she hasn’t for more than a year. The complex muscles around her mouth are too badly damaged, and the surgery done so far hasn’t overcome the problem. Nor can she frown, squint, or work her face into any other recognizable expression. Hers is the perfect poker face.
In the last thirty years of the twentieth century, nearly three million Cambodians died from disease or starvation, war and execution, most notably during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror known as the “killing fields” when an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians—nearly one in four—died in the late 1970s. The government that has held power for most of the time since then is dominated by former Khmer Rouge members who have shown their willingness to use any means necessary to retain their positions of power, from the murder of political opponents to widespread spying and torture. In high society, wives are prepared to battle tooth and nail to avoid losing their husbands and thus their social status to “second wives.” There is even a traditional Cambodian warning to pretty young girls: Beware of powerful men: They may kill you if you refuse their advances. And beware of their wives: They may kill you if you do not.
Even the nation’s most famous actress and dancer, Piseth Pilika, was gunned down on the street in broad daylight in July 1999. After she died a week later, her diary emerged to detail her affair with the prime minister, Hun Sen. The widespread sentiment in Phnom Penh, which is supported by the diary, is that Hun Sen’s wife ordered the hit. No one has been charged or arrested in the murder.
Marina grew up in a traditional wooden house in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, a city where the rich and powerful satisfy their whims at the expense of impoverished commoners. When her parents were in their fifties, considered elderly in a country where the median life expectancy is fifty-six years, Marina dropped out of the sixth grade to provide for them. Donning her finest clothes and eyeliner, she hawked fruit shakes late into the night from a street-side stand at the nation’s busiest intersection. She grossed fifty cents a drink plus tips. The gratuities came from men referred to as Ayudom—rich and well-connected businessmen—or from well-paid but lonely Western aid workers.
Although most Cambodian men with enough money visit prostitutes, often barely teenagers who were kidnapped or sold into sexual servitude by impoverished parents, the elite scout the karaoke music videos for mistresses. Marina was among the lucky ones. Less than two years after she started selling shakes, she was discovered and quickly introduced to the karaoke world. Sauntering about in glamorous but risquŽ outfits—at least by conservative Cambodian standards—and flirting coyly for the camera, she could demonstrate the grace she had learned a few years earlier when she took dance lessons from her idol, the actress Piseth Pilika. Marina would follow in Pilika’s footsteps, more closely than she knew.
In late December 1998, when Marina was just fifteen, a man came to see her at the karaoke studio. Svay Sitha, who was about forty, told her he was a successful Cambodian-American businessman and that he was unmarried. Such men, often from Long Beach, California—the largest Khmer city outside of Southeast Asia—amount to a choice catch for a young girl from a wooden house who needed security. Marina didn’t find him attractive, but he seemed respectful, sweet, and genuine. She told him she only wanted to be his friend. A week later, he took Marina out to a party, got her drunk, and seduced her. Soon after, he set her up in a one-bedroom apartment where he could visit her whenever he wanted. Within two months he was taking Marina on romantic getaways to places like the crumbling northwestern colonial town of Battambang. He never bought her anything, but he gave her money to buy things for herself.
He also took her to parties, the kind of events where government and military officials and high-powered businessmen known as oknhas drank bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue and Corvoisier. Marina gradually realized that her new boyfriend was not a businessman as he’d claimed. His official title was undersecretary of state for the council of ministers, although he is now in charge of demobilizing Cambodia’s oversize army. She also found out that Sitha was a close adviser to Cambodia’s much-feared dictator, Hun Sen. That wasn’t her only discovery. Sitha was also married and had four children, including a daughter Marina’s age.
“I felt sorry for his wife. I got so angry at him. I hated him,” Marina says in Khmer. “As soon as I found out he was married, I wanted to leave him, but he said that he was not a dog, and that I couldn’t just leave him like that.” Marina agreed to a last trip to Battambang. Once there, Sitha got a hotel room, ordered Marina to undress, and then left with her clothes. There is a strong taboo against public nudity in Cambodia, and for ten days Marina waited in the room, naked and alone, while a man guarded the door and hotel staff brought her food. “They didn’t know I was captive,” Marina explains. “The door was locked from the outside and I had no clothes, only the bed sheet.” When Sitha finally returned, he asked Marina if she was prepared to continue their relationship. Marina thought he had gone crazy. Fearful, she agreed, and they returned to Phnom Penh.
In June of 1999, a few months after they returned from Battambang, Marina began receiving telephoned threats: If she didn’t end the affair, acid would be thrown in her face. Marina recognized the caller’s voice, that of a man she had been introduced to socially, Khuon Van Dee, the nephew of Sitha’s wife, Khuon Sophal. In response to the threats, Sitha had Marina change houses, and then, a few months later, he ordered her to move to Battambang.
On December 5, the day before Marina was to move she went to a popular outdoor market with her three-year-old nephew to buy a cell phone that she could use outside of the capital. After feeding the child breakfast in a food stall, Marina prepared to eat a bowl of rice soup when someone grabbed her hair and jerked her off her stool onto the pavement. A woman in high heels began kicking her, calling her “the bitch who stole my husband.” The heels belonged to Sitha’s wife, Khuon Sophal. Half a dozen family members and bodyguards then set on Marina, punching her face as she lay on the ground, picking her up to knee her in the chest.
Covered in her own blood, Marina drifted in and out of consciousness. Khuon Van Dee pulled a canister of acid from his aunt’s car, parked nearby. Marina remembers being facedown on the ground as a thick liquid splashed onto her and began burning. Some of the acid splashed onto Van Dee’s pants, which he stripped off and left at the scene, his wallet still in the pocket. But nearly three quarts of acid poured over Marina’s head. “It felt like lava,” Marina told me softly.
Acid causes flesh to liquefy for a few brief seconds before it resolidifies. Drops leave small knotted scars on slim graceful fingers, symbols of sublime grace in Cambodia. A splash wipes away delicate details: dimples, pores, veins. A half-gallon washes away a face. Hair melts. Smile lines, gentle curves and folds disappear. Skin coagulates over orifices. Youth, beauty, and sensuality are eliminated in seconds, as though through some evil spell. In Cambodia, this is the ultimate scarlet letter. Until a government campaign to remove weapons from the streets drove up the price of arms, assaults on mistresses—which are remarkably common—were usually conducted with cheap machine guns or hand grenades that sold for as little as five dollars. Sulfuric acid, which is sold for less than a dollar per quart to purify gold, has since become the weapon of choice. It offers an advantage to spiteful wealthier women angry about their spouse’s dalliances; it destroys beauty and stigmatizes young concubines forever.
As word of the assault spread through the press, some Cambodians said they would feel sorry for Marina if she survived. Even though acid is not meant to kill, doctors questioned whether Marina would make it as she mumbled incoherently for days. She finally came to behind the pockmarked yellow faŤade of Kossamak Hospital, a place where medical care is hardly worthy of its name.
“I don’t remember anything of those first days. I couldn’t open my mouth or hear or say anything,” Marina recalls. “All I could see were shadows. I lost my mind from the shock.” She lay on a metal bed frame with a green foam mattress, while dust from Phnom Penh’s mostly unpaved roads drifted through the glassless windows and coated the room, getting into her wounds. Meanwhile, voices swirled around her, those of her older sister, Tat Srei Poev, and of Sitha, who some in the capital had expected to abandon her. She had severe burns across her head, face, neck, back, arms, and one leg. As part of a futile attempt to prevent her nostrils from sealing, doctors inserted plastic straws into them. What was left of her ears had rotted and turned black. Once curvaceous by Cambodian standards, her body withered as her immune system burned every available calorie to stave off infection.
Marina’s brother Sequndo had escaped from Cambodia with his aunt as the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979. He made it to the U.S. four years later, at age seven, a few months before Marina was born. He didn’t return to his homeland until May 1999 when he met his four younger sisters and rediscovered his family.
“It was like a dream when I first saw them,” he says. Marina was already a graceful and engaging young woman. The second time he saw her, she was mummified in gauze. Her burned flesh was a luminous red, and she weighed only sixty-eight pounds. “When she saw me she tried to get up and scream my name but she couldn’t. She was frustrated so she just flapped her arms; she looked like a skinny little bird with bandages all over. I couldn’t speak; I was just crying,” Sequndo recounts. “She looked like an incense stick.” At first he wanted to find the people who attacked his sister and kill them. “The person I wanted to kill first was the nephew,” Sequndo says of the main attacker, Khuon Van Dee, whose identification card from his discarded jeans sits in Sequndo’s bedroom in Boston, on the off chance that there is ever a trial. “No, I didn’t want to kill him—I wanted to pour acid on him.”
There was a rash of acid attacks around the time Sequndo visited his sister in the hospital in Phnom Penh, at least six in the month after the much-publicized assault on Marina. At least thirty were reported in the capital over the next twelve months, spurring the government to order restraints on the sale of acid. The government eventually took the extreme step of banning water pistols, a traditional part of the hot-season Khmer New Year celebration, for fear that people would fill them with acid to even scores.
A week after Sequndo’s arrival, Sitha arranged to have Marina go by car over the bumpy road to Vietnam. Without the better medical treatment there, she might have continued without the identifying features of a face. That Sitha sent Marina to Vietnam for treatment was just one of many signs of his surprising but enduring support for his mistress. In Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) doctors have decades of experience treating burn patients, many of them victims of American napalm attacks. Doctors there cut off what remained of Marina’s rotting ears to prevent infection, and began the long and painful process of cutting away badly damaged tissue and grafting healthy skin onto her upper body. As her nerve endings began to grow back, even the gentlest touch from her caregivers brought intense pain. She began an intense emotional retreat into herself, seldom speaking even to complain. Meanwhile Sequndo, who works as a medical assistant at a community health center in Lynn, Massachusetts, arranged for his sister to be accepted free of charge by the highly reputed Shriners Burns Hospital for children in downtown Boston.
The morning after her arrival in the U.S. less than two months after the attack, Marina was checked into the Shriners hospital where the medical team set to work to stabilize her health. Ten percent of her body remained severely burned. But to Marina and her family, the United States meant hope. They wondered: Is it possible that they can fix her? So much in America seems unfathomable to Cambodians who have never been to wealthier nations that anything might be possible. Marina’s first surgeon at the hospital, Dr. Robert Sheridan, was more cautious. “Her burn was never large,” he says, “but it was very deep and in all the wrong places.” Marina remained despondent, surrounded by an array of things she had never seen before: elevators, escalators, strange non-tropical fruit, snow, skyscrapers . . . Cambodia with its wide, muddy rivers, rice fields, and open spaces was a world away. Marina was overwhelmed. “I was very sad to be away from the family. I was lost.”
While the Shriners medical team has treated thousands of child burn victims, Marina was a special case. Despite her age, she had been living on her own as something of a celebrity and dealing with very adult situations. In combination with her Khmer culture this made her unreadable to the staff, in contrast to small children coming from abroad who in most ways are like small children everywhere. As a result, Marina was for the most part reduced to a canvas of flesh, lines, wrinkles, and hair follicles that they could work on as though shaping a clay bust.
While they began to improve her physical health and her appearance, it was difficult to get inside her mind where the true healing process starts. Doctors spoke of her stoic, silent endurance of the pain. Staff members discuss strange procedures, her brother gives permission, and Marina submits. Even if translations existed for “contracture” or “flat skin graft,” would Marina understand them? The details of what the doctors, therapists, or nurses do generally escapes her, at least until she sees the results. And when there are no results, it all amounts to so much pain and time for nothing. No surprise then that by ten weeks after the attack, Marina suffered from extreme depression.
“She was talking about how maybe she should have died,” her physical therapist Mary Jo Baryza tells me. “I think she was very much in danger.” A warm, accessible woman with slightly mussed blond hair and a ready smile, Baryza was able to break through the cultural and generation gap and reach the brokenhearted teenager trapped behind the burns. “In the beginning I don’t think she had any idea how to imagine a life,” Baryza says, but eventually Marina started rediscovering herself again in the playroom, where she took to nurturing the youngest children, especially those who also had head burns. With the infants and toddlers, the language barrier was not an issue. “The first time I saw her get out of herself,” Baryza says, “was when she said it was okay that she got burned, but that it was really sad that this baby got burned.”
The physical rehabilitation, which began a year before I met Marina will need to continue for many years; the mental and emotional scars will likely require a lifetime of attention. The Shriners hospital policy, however, is to treat her until she is twenty-one—possibly twenty-three if they judge her case to be special—but after that, she will be on her own. Time constraints mean that doctors pick and choose what surgeries they will have the time and operating room space for over the next three to five years. In the meantime, Marina has a long way to go before she will be able to reconnect with the world around her. There will be no moment when the gauze is stripped away and she is once again complete. It is a long, doubt-filled, painful, incomprehensible process. Surgeons have begun to rebuild Marina’s face in broad strokes, taking skin from other parts of her body and patching it together creatively on her face, giving her some semblance of normality. She once again has cheeks, a nose, a forehead, lips, and a chin, but her appearance will change many times before the surgeons are done, as skin is added, excised, and then added again. Only later will surgeons go in for the finer details, reshaping and redrawing the muscles, lines, and tendons in an attempt to allow her to communicate emotions through her expressions.
After each round of surgery, Marina endures the psychological shock of seeing an unfamiliar yet still badly scarred face in her mirror. She runs her fingers along suture lines after surgery or traces the curves of swollen cheeks, re-created lips or a repeatedly rebuilt neck. Although she has repeatedly been warned against high expectations, each fresh surgery that doesn’t restore her enough merely forces her to postpone the expectations until the next round of surgeries, or the one that follows. How else could she endure this pain, or the passage of time? “I would expect that by the time she is thirty she will have had enough surgeries on her face and will know enough about corrective makeup that she could walk down the street and most people wouldn’t pay attention,” says Baryza. A dozen years of rude, shocked stares, rather than appreciative glances, would be like a death sentence to Marina.
In the Tats’ living room, sitting across from Marina’s frozen mask of a face, I remember visiting the famous stone temples of Angkor, Cambodia’s ancient northern capital. Amid the twisting roots of huge trees that clutch enormous stone blocks in a deathly grip are rows of delicate carvings of apsaras, mythical dancing angels; young girls with graceful limbs. Many of these, like Marina, have missing faces, mute testimony to the assaults of vandals. Can Marina, unlike the dancing angels, tell her story? I push a curtain aside to look out the window, to see what she might see from her couch each morning. I am surprised to discover a translucent layer of plastic blocking the view (Sequndo says it is to keep the frigid winter out). Nor is there a view from the room where Marina sleeps, which is little more than a large closet with only a folding partition separating it from the kitchen. While the middle class neighborhood might be full of fascinating things for a teenager from afar, Marina rarely sees any of it. Out there, strangers might leer. Kids might stare. Infants might curl into their mother’s embrace at the sight of her. And even if no one looks straight at her with a shock that might mimic her own, Marina hasn’t yet perfected the art of avoiding her own stray reflection in a passenger’s side car window, a glass store front, a chrome fender, a well-shined cash register, a pair of sunglasses. In the apartment she knows to avoid the glass-framed photographs of her that might reflect her present face in brutal contrast to the one she lost.
For Marina, any reflection—even the reaction of people on the street—may represent another small death. So a year after arriving in the U.S., Marina still spends her days looking over photographs of herself and her friends or watching videotapes of her old karaoke performances like an elderly actress looking back on films from her youth. The shadow of her beauty seems to prevent her from contemplating what has happened to her, who is to blame, or what she might really do with the rest of her life. It is a great source of frustration to those around her that, as she waits to see what the doctors can do, she is not preparing for her new life. Nor is she interested in therapy, counselors, psychologists, or support groups; all those people who believe that rehashing the past might bring her into the present. “All the people wanted to talk about me. I didn’t like it,” Marina declares. “I don’t want to talk about all of this. I say it over and over and it all gets mixed up.”
So, while the distant past appears to be not merely the best escape, but perhaps the only relief, the nightmares creep up in her waking hours. In a reflection in her dinner plate, she once saw the face of Sitha’s wife, Sophal. Although Sophal was charged with attempted murder, fearful Cambodian police officials claim they cannot find her. No one has been prosecuted and the police haven’t asked Sitha, who remains a high profile government official, where his wife is because they assume that he will lie to protect her. While such criminal impunity is not surprising to Cambodians, I am stunned when Sequndo tells me that Sophal called the Tats’ home twice. Her message to Marina: Sitha no longer wants you now that you’re ugly.
But the bond between Sitha and Marina is stronger than anyone might have guessed. When I ask Marina if she is angry with Sitha for not letting her leave him when she wanted to, she responds with absolute certainty, “People who love each other, no matter how bad they are to one another, would never wish to be abandoned.” When I ask whether her lover is responsible for her situation, Marina goes completely silent and stares at her feet, and then whisks out of the room like a ghost without responding.
“I think that in her mind, she thinks he’s responsible, but she can’t say it,” Sequndo says. He is deeply frustrated that she refuses to blame Sitha. Minutes later, the telephone rings, Sequndo answers and starts speaking in Khmer. He covers the receiver with his hand and whispers dramatically, “It is Sitha.” It turns out that Sitha calls almost every night from his office in Phnom Penh. Marina comes out, takes the phone, and like a typical teenager on the phone with a boyfriend, disappears into the bathroom. I can hear her voice through the wall during their two-minute conversation. “I have known him for a long time, so I know I can trust him,” she explains later. Her lost lover makes her feel like the best of the past can become the future. He even tells her they will reunite. He promises to visit. She speaks to him with difficulty in a halting voice, but he makes her nightmares more bearable. Sitha—the man who imprisoned Marina naked in a hotel room and whose wife imprisoned her in a ruined body—has earned Marina’s trust by standing by her. He covered her medical costs in Southeast Asia and during her first year in Boston, he sent $3,000, many times his official monthly salary, even though the girl whom he seduced for her physical beauty, has none left. Does he support her out of guilt or a desire to protect his wife and career by preventing Marina from stirring up trouble, or is it something else? I put the question to Marina, who replies, “It is normal for a husband to send money and call every day.”
The previous night Sitha accused Marina of having an affair with their roommate, Thierry, who has become Marina’s best friend in the Boston. Sequndo and Thierry laugh with dark sarcasm at the prospect. Marina starts to make a disconcerting huffing sound. I can’t tell if she is laughing or crying, but I start to understand her. Over the telephone line, Marina is how she always was. With Sitha on the other end, she is restored. Who more than he understood her past beauty? In their conversations, she is no longer the girl whose face was stolen, ruined, destroyed. It might even make sense to her when he speaks of jealousy about other men. She knows that Sitha pictures her before she was mutilated, and through his voice, she is beautiful again. If his voice is a spell, leaving Sitha means being cursed with ugliness, perhaps forever, in a strange apartment in a world that makes no sense. Here, she is trapped in her skin, surrounded by her brother’s anger and a medical team who are trying to do the work of God, but with lesser tools.
Tonight, however, Sitha called to apologize for the previous night’s accusation. It was a short conversation that, once finished, saw Marina return quietly back to the living room to take her place. And did Marina forgive him, again? She looks down at the ground. She looks away as all eyes in the room try to read her new face. She pauses during what seems like a full minute. “Yes, I did,” she says. Marina, it turns out, gave Sitha the Tat’s telephone number against her brother’s wishes after they moved to a new apartment. When I ask her why, she answers slowly but clearly in Khmer: “I still love him.”
Sequndo shakes his head in disbelief. “Stupid girl. I can’t stop her. I can’t force her. She will know when to stop talking to him,” he says, more hopeful than certain. Marina’s plans for the future, meanwhile, vary with her moods. She says, “I will go back to Cambodia after all of these surgeries. I won’t go to meet him, but I will go back to Cambodia to be with my family.” At other times, Marina has suggested that she will go back to Sitha to humiliate his wife and seek a sort of peaceful vengeance. And then there are moments when she doesn’t seem interested in going back to Cambodia no matter what, especially if doctors cannot restore her beauty. Yet when Sitha tells Marina that he is nearly finished building a house for her, she melts at the prospect. At least until her brother chimes in bitterly: “Is it going to be a real house or a coffin?”
The frustration in the air is palpable, and I am beginning to have trouble discerning mine from Sequndo’s. Sophal and her nephew Van Dee stole the most important thing in Marina’s life: hope. But while Marina seems to feel many things about the attack—especially fear—she seems to be the only one who is not enraged. Nearly everyone around her is angry about her victimization, and many of them want her to be; she just closes them out. Even her brother, the one person who she can regularly communicate with in Khmer, and the person who spends the most time with Marina, has been shut out. As she explains that her nightmares and daydreams continue, he says with audible frustration in his voice, “I thought they had stopped.”
Marina doesn’t seem interested in assigning responsibility for her fate, which might be a good thing as justice is so unlikely. She doesn’t blame her lover or even her attacker for her plight, although she shivers when she hears Sophal’s name. “It was my destiny,” Marina says on the couch where she spends her days in front of the television. In a rare moment during which she is willing to reflect on the moral of her story, Marina again surprises and frustrates: “My story offers an ugly lesson about the dangers of being with a married man. Girls shouldn’t get involved with any of them. For me, it is too late.”
In the moments of lucidity when Marina does realize that her life has forever changed, she throws her old pictures in the trash can or listens to French-language singer Dalida, who gained renown for singing tragic love songs before committing suicide over love lost. But then Marina picks those photographs out of the trash and puts her old karaoke videos on and follows along with the lyrics in flowing Khmer script on the bottom of the screen and sings as best she can while a pretty girl saunters about in front of banana trees, rice fields, and verdant waterways. The entire apartment fills with her strained voice. The passion is so intense that one might think she is trying to sing her way back into the life she sees on the screen.
As night falls, I depart Boston on icy roads, contemplating how much pain Marina has endured, and how the pain seems to have become secondary to the prospect of being made to look normal. “She is obviously not going to be a karaoke star in the US,” Mary Jo Baryza told me when I asked her what Marina could expect from the future. “I would hope that she would have figured out something to do so that she can support herself. She’s basically made her living and centered her life around the fact that she is beautiful, and by most standards she is never going to have the outward beauty again.”
I begin to suspect why Marina doesn’t seem to be drowning in anger when everyone around her is; she has found hope in a most unlikely place. Her unlikely source—unlikely only to those of us who don’t believe in it—remains Sitha. Along with Sequndo and some Shriners’ staff members, I haven’t been able to keep myself from rooting for Marina to acknowledge her fate and to move on. It might seem like a diminished existence to her now, but at least she would get a jump on a new future. I realize, however, that I am trapped by my own rigid logic. I suspect that Marina already knows deep down what we so desperately want her to learn, and that is precisely why she rejects it. Amid her many losses, the loss of hope could leave her with nothing.
So I decide to play along with her foolish hope, to see where it leads. I am ready to pretend that doctors really can perform miracles and that she can reclaim the thread of her old life. Back in Manhattan, I call Sequndo and ask him to pass along one last question: What will Marina do if doctors succeed? I hear Marina respond in Khmer in the background, again with her tone of absolute certainty, but her brother says nothing. It is a charged silence; one made up of his heavier than normal breathing. I suspect that fury is boiling up inside of him and making him forget to translate, or even speak to me.
“Sequndo, what did she say?” I ask.
“If they improve my looks so that I am pretty like I was before, then I would think about going back, to become an actress.”