Selling John Deere tractors is just part of the daily routine for Siem Reap French expat Dominique Dufieux, and she shrugs off any suggestion that it may be a tad unusual.
But then again, 37-year-old Dominique’s life story is anything but usual and spans a childhood escape from the Khmer Rouge, an entanglement with a messy international corporate legal drama, and a hair-raising car rally through the Moroccan desert.
Dominique was born in Phnom Penh, and was two-and-a-half years old when her family fled the Kingdom and the Khmer Rouge.
Dominique’s family joined hundreds of others sheltering at the French Embassy for several weeks following the Khmer Rouge’s advance into Phnom Penh.
Dominique’s father Michel, a salesman for Peugeot, features as a bit player in several books written about the period, including Francois Bizot’s memoir The Gate, which is now being made into a movie.
Dominique says her father’s scepticism
of the Khmer Rouge’s intentions led him to accept an offer from the US Embassy to evacuate the family by plane.
She says that because her father was also a pilot, he had already seen evidence of what the Khmer Rouge was doing outside of the city, and had warned French residents that they needed to realise that the Khmer Rouge were killing people rather than liberating them.
Now, just on 35 years after her dramatic childhood departure to France, Dominique
is back in the Kingdom and working as a procurement and logistic manager for RMA Cambodia Co Ltd in Siem Reap. The job entails selling John Deere tractors, Ford vehicles, and electricity generators to customers between Poipet and Battambang.
But Dominique’s life has taken many unusual twists and turns.
She says all she recalls of her childhood is the initial shock of adjusting to life in France.
“All I can remember is the noise and the size of the people. I was going under the table each time I heard a noise like a motorbike, and my grandmother used to say ‘What’s happened to this child?’”
Eventually she settled comfortably in France, married an Englishman called Mark, and together they ran an English-language school.
She began occasionally visiting Cambodia to do humanitarian work in the early 1990s, and had no intention at the time of moving back to the country of her birth.
But the decision to relocate came in the wake of a contractual dispute with the French pharmaceutical company bioMérieux.
The English-language school which she and her husband ran provided English training to businesses including bioMérieux.
There was a legal falling out with the group that’s been well documented in the media with allegations of threats and aggression.
“It was ridiculous, it was like something out of the movies,” she says.
The scenario peaked with allegations of a physical attack on husband Mark in 2002. The stress caused the couple to divorce, and prompted Dominique to return to Cambodia in November of 2008 after accepting a job with international railway construction company TSO (Cambodia) Co Ltd to conduct a survey on Cambodia’s railways.
“I decided to move back here because honestly, I didn’t want to stay in France,” she said. “It was extremely psychologically stressful, and I had no experience of that type of aggression before.”
Her husband Mark has continued to publicise the case, most recently flying to America to picket a bioMérieux factory in North Carolina. But Dominique has tried to put it behind her, and says she now looks back on the experience as if it happened to someone else.
“For me, I had to turn a page and start a new life. My ex-husband was completely focused on the injustice. Sometimes when you are a victim of something, you can’t rest until you’re acknowledged as a victim.”
But back in Cambodia, working for TSO involved danger of a different kind – in the form of the thousands of mines still littering the Cambodian countryside and aggression from villagers who didn’t want the rail road to intrude on their patch.
“In the north we had problems because the tracks had all been torn up. We had to lay new ones right on the rice fields. Often we’d send topographic surveyors to take measurements and they’d return and say the villagers wanted to cut them with a big knife and things like that.”
To overcome the stress and rigour of that job, Dominique took time out in March last year to take part in the annual Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc – a gruelling 2500-kilometre all-women car rally through the Moroccan desert which took six days to complete.
“I needed to get out of Cambodia to do something crazy, thinking that when I come back I will feel a lot better.”
Upon returning to the Kingdom she accepted a job in May 2010 with RMA Cambodia, working at the company’s new branch in Siem Reap. The company is expanding and she says the role suits her perfectly.
“I do intend to stay. For me it’s a very beautiful town, and it’s pleasant to live here.”