Always the Children
PUBLISHED: 10:50 18 October 2010 | UPDATED: 17:59 20 February 2013
For years, Anne Watts kept silent about her experiences of nursing in South East Asian war zones, then she decided to write more about it. Words by Anna Turns
Its from a quaint cottage tucked away in the West Devon village of Lifton that Anne Watts has written her powerful first book, Always the Children, about her nursing career in conflict zones of Cambodia and Vietnam.
Anne grew up in rural post-war Wales during the 1940s, where she developed a yearning to travel. Having a sea captain father had a lot to do with that, and I had a great Geography teacher at school who bought everything to life, she explains. After leaving school, Anne trained as a nurse and her career has taken her all over the world. I didnt sit down when I was 16 and think I want to be a nurse and go to all the most miserable war-torn places I can think of. But my choices took me down this route, and it always felt right. Nursing is not a job, its who you are. It is nurturing gone haywire!
Nowadays, the most difficult supermarket aisle for Anne to walk down is the bottled water section. For her, this is a reminder of how people across the world have very different realities. In a world where some mothers have to walk miles each day to collect dirty drinking water and others have a choice of numerous flavoured or sparkling varieties, some things dont make sense to Anne. The modern world can be so extremely different from my wartime experiences, she says. Here weve got all this technology at our fingertips why cant that same technology provide everyone in the world with safe drinking water?
Anne soon found that the key to unleashing her memories was to write the story of each child
Listening to Anne is a reminder that its easy to become numb to shocking news on a TV bulletin or in the weekend papers. A sense of life in the makeshift hospital wards of a conflict zone may be quite incomprehensible, but the key to true understanding is making it personal. And this is just what Anne Watts, now 70, does successfully in Always the Children. She tells the stories of individual children behind the news headlines, which still resonate today. Although they may seem hard-hitting, they also retain a glimmer of hope.
Anne admits that she is first and foremost a nurse so it took her a long time to settle her mind and get into the zone for writing. For years, she never talked much about what shed seen. From all angles, people would tell me to write my stories down, but all my experiences were locked up inside. She wells up as she talks: Theres a compartment where these children all are. To Anne autobiography and memoir were such scary words.
The turning point came a few years ago during a conversation with her younger sister, Joan, who is also a nurse and lives nearby in Cornwall. She quietly told me that when you die, all those childrens stories will die with you and that stayed with me. Anne also rediscovered some of the letters she had written home from all the places abroad where she had worked since 1966. She says, Reading my own words from real time was quite a touching experience.
Anne soon found that the key to unleashing her memories was to write the story of each child. I began pouring out these little vignettes, she explains. A lot of the things I write about arent the sorts of things you would forget anyway. An example is the story of Hue (pronounced Whey), a little girl only eight years old who quite literally had her world blown apart. She came to us at the camp just after she had lost her leg and nasty shrapnel had torn into her cheek, so she insisted on combing her glossy black hair forward onto her face. Anne recounts the story of how one traumatised soldier with the thousand-yard-stare connected with this lost little girl and helped make a prosthetic leg for Hue from his leather boots. His final touch was to make her an Alice band with yellow ribbon to hold her hair back from her face.
Anne found her writing quite therapeutic. Opening up what is in your heart is a painful process, even though it has been there for many years. After sending a package of 12 chapters to various literary agents, she was taken aback when one called back to say, I have never read anything like this before and wed love to take you on.
My sister was over the moon that wed got these stories out there, says Anne. Then Joan persuaded her to rent a cottage in Lifton to give her the quiet space in which to complete writing the manuscript.
"The myth is that war is all about heroes, medals and marching bands. The stark reality of war is so much more than that"
Two million people were killed in the regime led by Pol Pots Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. But what do those numbers mean? asks Anne. If people read this book theyll get to meet two of them. She introduces me to the stories of Solina and Vichuta who were young girls when the Khmer Rouge took over in 75. Solina helped me as translator while I worked on the camps just over the border in Thailand, and Vichuta had a lucky escape her neighbours intercepted her on her way home the day her family was attacked and told her not to go home. So she ran for her life and eventually pitched up in camp where I was assigned.
Anne returned to Cambodia in 2004, and visited both Solina and Vichuta. Solina insisted we visit the Killing Fields, saying to me, It is the last piece of the jigsaw of the Cambodian peoples story. I want you to tell our story. It is important to Anne that her book tells an honest account of their lives, their survival and how far they have come. Vichuta reminded Anne of her little blue dictionary, which she has kept over all those years. It was so touching to see because that dictionary represented the education these girls had lost. Solina had a yellow dictionary, explains Anne.
The ultimate tragedy is that nothing is changing. When I see heroes arriving back at Wootton Bassett in coffins, I also wonder why those that come home maimed often feel forgotten about. The myth is that war is all about heroes, medals and marching bands. The stark reality of war is so much more than that. And it doesnt matter whether in my book Im writing about the 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s, she says poignantly. But who says history has to be repeated? She muses whether all that has happened is that she has aged 50 years; but this is not so because there are so many wonderful stories of people Anne met and helped along the way. But why did they have to go through it all in the first place? she asks.
Anne concludes pragmatically that for real change to happen, it takes people of vision. And her book Always the Children will definitely make you think twice next time you walk down the bottled water aisle.