JUST one year ago, Leng Hun, 74 - known as "Grandma Hun" to just about everyone - said: "I've had a miserable, terrible life. If I hadn't believed in the Buddha I would have jumped in a pond and committed suicide."
Yet on April 30, the former "comfort woman" from Korea said she couldn't be happier now. More than 50 years after being brought to Cambodia during the Second World War to provide sexual services to Japanese troops, her lifelong dream was fulfilled. She was on her way back to live in her native land at last - and she had become an inadvertent celebrity as well.
"I am very happy, and I want to express my gratitude to my family and to the people who assisted me," she said at a farewell luncheon in Phnom Penh given by the South Korea-based Supporter's Association for Grandma Hun. Photographers rushed to snap photos of the diminutive, wrinkled figure dressed in pink traditional Korean han bok robes.
"She has become very famous. Every Korean person knows her," said Frank Kang, a Korean businessman active in the Supporter's Association who was accompanying her home.
Hun's life changed from a hardscrabble Cambodian village existence in Skoun, Kampong Cham, in 1996, when her granddaughter bumped into a Korean businessman, Hwang Ki Yun. Hun clasped his hand and wept for an hour at finally meeting a fellow Korean, and told him her life story. It was reported by the Post in 1997 and subsequently publicized throughout South Korea, gaining Hun the sympathy and help she needed to finally return to her home.
Born in 1924 as Lee nam-Yi, she was forced to leave Korea in 1943 and serve as a sex slave in Phnom Penh for two years. "It was painful during that period," Hun said softly during the luncheon.
In 1945 she began living with a Japanese officer, who eventually abandoned her and her daughter. She married a Cambodian man and had three more children, but left him because he was an alcoholic.
She survived the Pol Pot years, though not without a narrow escape. "Someone reported to the higher authorities that I was not born here due to my accent. We were supposed to be taken away... but somehow it didn't happen," she told the Post in 1997.
The Democratic Kampuchea regime did claim the life of her son. A daughter died about five years ago.
But now she has discovered a whole new family in South Korea. With help from the Supporter's Association, she made a visit to her hometown of Jindong in August 1997, and met her sister as well as nieces and nephews she never knew she had.
With help from Cambodian and Korean officials, she won Korean citizenship and, after some wrangling, became the first person to renounce Cambodian citizenship, according to Korean Embassy First Secretary Seung Jun Oh.
The embassy official added that Korean citizenship may also make her eligible to receive compensation from the Japanese government - a possibility given new life by a recent win in a Japanese court by three Korean comfort women demanding redress.
But despite her new passport - presented to her at the luncheon - Hun has not given up her ties to Cambodia. Her extended family remains here, and many had mixed emotions at the farewell lunch.
"I will miss her, and I'm concerned about her health... but I am also happy that my grandma is returning to her own country," said Leak Sina, 26.
Grandma Hun has promised to return often to visit, but says the decision to become Korean is the right one. "I will miss Cambodia also, because my relatives and children are here, but I still miss Korea when I am here."