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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #39 (September 21, 2004), page 15.
French author recalls imprisonment in Cambodia
By François Bizot
Alfred A. Knopf, 2003
Hardcover, 278 pages, $24.00
By Dave Johnson
Not since the horrific memoir and subsequent film, The Killing Fields, has there been as riveting a narrative of the Khmer Rouge’s ravaging of Cambodia as The Gate, by François Bizot.
As the only Westerner who survived capture by the guerrilla force that ran amok in the early 1970s, after the climax of the war in Vietnam, his remembrance is a valuable historical archive. It consists of two time periods — his life-threatening sojourn in a jungle prison and his harrowing days in the French Embassy compound in Phnom Penh, where he acted as an intermediary in a standoff between communist guerrillas and the staff of the embassy.
A 31-year-old French ethnologist who was swept up in the nightmarish relocation of millions of Cambodians, Bizot was incarcerated for three months. After talking his way out of this lethal captivity, he hiked out of the tropical forest and into Phnom Penh.
He remembers walking all night long, guided by a relay team. Once in the capital, he watched "hordes of Khmer Rouge who were roaming the streets with bullhorns, ordering the population to evacuate the city." As the outside world watched aghast, the massacres increased exponentially.
Bizot describes shop girls brutally forced to evacuate the city by self-righteous partisans who considered them prostitutes: "They had broken their polished nails on the edge of the pavement." As he wandered the deserted city, the author explains, "I shut my eyes and went deep into the entrails of this empty stomach like someone in a futuristic comic strip …."
Before his release, Bizot was moved about the forest. He describes his second location: "The new camp, like the first, had been constructed in a vast bamboo grove, where the tall, pliant stalks rose and fell like luminous trails of fireworks."
Zeroing in on the peculiar nature of a shackled life, he says, "I … gazed pensively at the post to which I had been chained for so long. Staring at it, I could suddenly feel the extent of the strange links that bound me to the spot where my suffering had found shelter."
Central to this tale of torture, suffering, and impending death is Bizot’s exploration of the dark and luminous corners of the human heart. We are introduced to his captor and interrogator, a math teacher turned Communist revolutionary who went by the nom de guerre Douch.
Bizot claims that his conversations with Douch saved his life. During these long, rambling dialogues, Bizot realized that his jailer was a sincere idealist and, in turn, Douch understood that his prisoner wasn’t a C.I.A. agent.
Bizot was deeply reassured. "Having lived for years in a Khmer village, having married a Cambodian woman, and feeling such closeness and solidarity with the local inhabitants, I could not bear to be taken for an American."
After one evening’s talk with Douch, he concluded, "I often thought about this conversation; a dark revelation beneath a star of foreboding … I had been convinced by the reassuring image of the brutal executioner. Now the man of faith, staring ahead of himself with an expression combining gloom and bitterness, suddenly emerged in his immense solitude. Just as he revealed such cruelty, I surprised myself by feeling affectionate toward him. We confronted each other with the closeness of two friends out to change the world, neglecting sleep, hearts full of excitement and sadness."
Bizot was impressed with his captor’s intelligence as well as his feelings that had been "honed as the tooth of the wolf or shark … his human psychology had been carefully preserved."
Moved by the depth of their dialogues, Douch convinced the rebel high command to release the Frenchman. "I acted according to my conscience," he explained.
Three decades later, still astonished by this act of goodwill and trust, Bizot concludes, "The best moments of emotion are gifts of chance."
Francois Bizot is director of Studies at the Ecole Pratique des Haute-études and holds the chair in Southeast Asian Buddhism at the Sorbonne. He lives in Paris.