Rows of colorful donuts are organized by size and topping in the huge display cases. The woman behind the counter deftly maneuvers between trays with a pair of big plastic tongs as customers point at donuts through the glass. Her black hair is pulled back into a ponytail and her crisp collar-shirt is covered with a clean white apron. She smiles through her pursed lips; her rosy cheeks wrinkle as she thanks her customers in a cheery high staccato voice that bridges Khmer and English.
Her demeanor is so friendly and so kind, it takes a long pause to see that any of this ever really happened. “My customers don’t believe me when I tell them,” she says.
She is referring to her childhood living in Cambodia under the notoriously brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge.
As Cambodian New Year approaches, Cambodians have another reason to reflect on the past. Earlier this week, Cambodian activist and war journalist, Dith Pran died. He is remembered as the voice of the nation, exposing the horrible genocide in Cambodia to the world, coining the much-repeated phrase “Killing Fields” in reference to the nearly 2 million Cambodians that were killed at the hand of the Khmer Rouge.
Michaela Lek, 45, managed to escape, though many were not so lucky. Today she runs a small Donut shop in West LA with her husband. It is a quiet day in the shop when she takes up a stool and begins to unfold her story.
She starts each sentences with “before communist”, “after communist”, or “in communist.” Clearly the communist takeover in 1975 has become a benchmark in time for those who lived through this era in the tiny developing nation.
The Khmer Rouge seized Cambodia by way of the capital, Phnom Penh, shortly after the US abandoned the war in Vietnam. With half-baked ideas of returning the country to “year zero,” where history and class were wiped out, the faction nonetheless still retained some shades of communist ideals. “They hate rich people. They say you using your power to make the poor people work for you.” Michaela says.
“In communist, if you have background, they will kill you.” Her father had a background; he was a businessman in Phnom Penh. He managed a pharmacy with employees and lived with his family in a nice 5-story city house.
Her uncle was a pilot for the Cambodian Army, stationed in a US training camp across the border in Thailand. US officials informed her uncle of the imminent communist take over and told him to get his family out of the country immediately. Her uncle quickly relayed the information to Michaela’s father. However, he was concerned about his business, if he sold the pharmacy at that time; he would lose over half of what it was worth. Also as a businessman, he thought the new government would be civil. If anyone was in danger, surely it would only be the Cambodian soldiers that fought against the Khmer Rouge in the war. Of course, she admits, if he had known what was to happen, we would have left the country.
It was April of 1975, when the soldiers came to their homes carrying guns. A blistering hot day, Michaela remembers. The soldiers said they needed to evacuate the city so the new government could “organize”, promising that they would only have to leave for 3 days. My father knew it was a lie, Michaela recalls. Dealing with the soldiers was precarious. “He was smart,” she says pointing to her brow. He told the soldiers that he was a farmer. Many, who were not so quick, were killed immediately.
“My father was in shock.” They told us to go anywhere, just leave the city. So we left everything and walked for 3 days and 2 nights to my grandparent’s farm in Kandal.
The walk was long in the hot sun with no water or food. She remembers going to the river to drink. Along the riverbanks and roads laid the bodies of those who had said or done something wrong. “You can’t believe it. You can’t think.” She says leaning forward.
She reaches out with her small hands and grabs the hand of her listener to make sure they are paying attention. “In communist, they collect all property, no money, no school, no electricity, no water.”
The shop door buzzes; a young father with his son picks out some donuts. “You got tall,” she tells the boy. The father smiles proudly. Michaela slips an extra donut into their bag.
They were only in Kandal for a short time, when the soldiers came again. This time they split the families into groups and took them away to labor camps. She was separated from her family and remembers her father trying to prepare her and her siblings for the hard times to come. She takes off her glasses and recites ardently. “My father said, be strong if you want to live. Learn from those who survive, because they will kill you.”
She was taken to Kampong Cham, a region of rice fields in the southeast. A place she remembers with a shutter. At 11 years old, she was forced to wake at 3 or 4 in the morning and cut reeds in the rice fields until dark. They called us the “new people”; we were from the city, we wore colorful clothes and had never worked like this. They didn’t like us. The “old people” were those from the country, they wore tattered black clothes and worked too fast.
“I’m so small,” she says wincing. “In the city, we never worked hard.”
She could never work fast enough; the reeds would pile up and the soldiers would come and stand before her, yelling for her to work faster and harder. She was scared stiff for she recalls her uncle, who could not work fast or hard enough. “They shot him in the middle of the field,” she says. “They led people off in lines and never said where people were going, but we knew because they bring back the clothes of the dead for people to wear.”
At night, they laid awake on the floor of the grass hut, paralyzed with fear. “There was no talking at night. They take you at night. The next day people just disappear.” She jumps up, pushing back her stool. “I told my cousin I will die soon. Every night I pray that my family could leave this place.”
Her wish came true. Swiftly in the night and without warning, she and her family were shipped by train to Batdambang, a region in the north.
She puts on her glasses and pulls out an empty lotto ticket to draw a map of the rice field where she worked in Batdambang. Life was marginally easier in Batdambang. Still, she says “we were skin and bone,” she holds up her arm and pinches her skin, “and the skin color..from the water.” Searching for the correct words, she describes how the sewage was dried and laid over the fields for fertilizer, the same marsh and canals where they got their water. The contamination made everyone sick.
Everyone was starving. She draws her thin fingers together to show the rations, less than a spoon of rice a day. “At first it was rice, then it was porridge.” They boiled a few grains of rice in water and that’s what we ate.
Starvation, exhaustion from slave labor and execution, claimed the lives of 21 percent of the Cambodian population. In 1979, the Vietnamese Army seized Phnom Penh, forcing the Khmer Rouge north. Although the struggle was far from over, the Vietnamese invasion demobilized the Khmer Rouge.
The storehouses that contained people’s confiscated possessions became poorly guarded. It was this turn of events that allowed Michaela and her family a way out of Batdambong. People began stealing from the warehouses. So a tiny trade economy developed. With the help of a friend, her father was able to secure bikes that would carry the family south back to Kandal. However, life in Kandal proved just as dangerous. Reacquainting with neighbors in the region made the lie they were forced to tell, that they were farmers, difficult to keep. They had to escape the country.
Soviet military vehicles rumbled daily over the war torn roads. Michaela and her family were able to pay a small sum and stowaway in the back of a large truck traveling to the northern border. Here they waited in a small village with others who were planning to cross the border into Thailand, a passage that claimed many lives.
“The Thai soldiers were nasty,” she says, they would ask for your identification, but of course we had nothing, so they would send us back into the country. They would rob you. They would rape the girls. “My father was very worried for me, because I was older.”
“My father prayed to my grandparents,” she says. Days passed as they waited for the right time to cross. Then one day he had a dream that now was a good time to go. So they trekked into the forest.
If the soldiers saw that we were a family, they would know that we were escaping and seize us, so my father took my brothers, and I went with my cousin. “We were so lucky,” she says again and again. “My cousin was so afraid. But I didn’t know why.” She later found out that the sinuous path was littered with landmines and as women, they were in great danger of being kidnapped or raped if found.
The final passage into Thailand seemed impossible. Border soldiers watched the fences night and day. “It was a miracle!” She says. We were on the road that night and my grandmother’s spirit came to my mother and made a flash in the sky. “No one else saw it, only my mother.” In the light she saw that the soldiers were asleep, so we were able to climb the fence. All 10 of her family members snuck over the fence, past the sleeping guards into Thailand. “I believe my grandmother put those men to sleep.”
The UNICEF camp provided only minimal refuge. It was riddled with corruption, the main issue being food rations. There was never enough food. “Some people go under the fence outside to find food, but the soldiers kill them,” she says.
Michaela’s brother was placed in an orphanage so that he could be sponsored by a foreign organization. Luckily he was sponsored by a church in the United States and was able to go and live with his uncle, the pilot, who evacuated with the military. This was very fortunate for Michaela and her family. While others starved without their food rations, her brother sent money to the camp securely through the church, so that they could bargain for their rations. Still the family could not wait to be sponsored, food supply was insufficient and mortars were still going off daily around the camp. Over a year after they arrived, they were able to immigrate to Sydney, Australia.
In Australia, Michaela went to school to become a seamstress. Her face lights up as she talks about making her own patterns and working in Australia as a dressmaker. When her family relocated to be with her brother in Long Beach, she tried to work as a dressmaker, but the conditions were too difficult. The pay was too low and jobs were scarce. “Everything goes to China now,” she says, so she started the donut shop.
Michaela is working with her sister today. Her sister turns to give a waiting man his lottery tickets. “No, she always hands them to me,” he says, motioning to Michaela. “She’s got the magic touch,” he says to no one in particular. “Good luck” Michaela sings over the counter.
“The customers always say how caring, understanding, and helpful she is.” Her youngest sister, Mardy Bakly says with a tinge of Australian in her voice. Michaela sits on her stool smiling silently.
Mardy joins in and the girls begin reliving life in Australia. “It was old fashion there, 5 years behind America.” Mardy adds in between customers. “Australians are friendlier. In America, they only think about money, how much money you have, how many cars you have.”
Michaela agrees. “Here people work, work, work, no stop. In the beginning, I didn’t like it here, too many people. Now it just seems normal.”
The Friday afternoon traffic has slowed. Both sisters relax on the counter. Recalling Michaela’s past has made for an unusual day. It’s easy to see how one could become emotionally paralyzed from such traumatic experiences.
Dith Pran once said, “With Cambodians the grief leaves the face quickly, but it goes inside and stays there for a long time.” The past has a way of haunting the present. One has to wonder whether these experiences still trouble her today.
Michaela straightens up and with resolution in her voice says, “No. They are just memories.”
Neighborhood: Palms (cross street Sepulveda)
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