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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The gate that closed on suffering

A woman seeking refuge looks through the French embassy’s grated gate in Phnom Penh in April 1975
A woman seeking refuge looks through the French embassy’s grated gate in Phnom Penh in April 1975. ROLAND NEVEU

The gate that closed on suffering

On April 17, 1975, 600 foreign residents and nearly 1,000 Khmers, Chinese and Vietnamese sought refuge in the French embassy located at the intersection of Monivong Boulevard and Street 76, behind a gate that separated them from the Khmer Rouge forces overwhelming the city.

Then housed in one of the largest green spaces left inside the city limits, that gate is still ensconced there today; its wire mesh bearing signs of repair that took place since that fateful day.

Preserved at the far end of the embassy among the deer and monkeys that roam the 7.5 hectares, the gate was reclaimed by the French in 1991 after diplomatic relations were restored and the embassy returned.

“This gate opened and then closed on an unspeakable suffering and the death of millions of Cambodians,” reads a quotation etched into a nearby stone.

The gate now stands alone again, the last emblem of the final diplomatic mission remaining in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge took the city.

Rusted, corrugated spikes offered laughable protection in the face of the Khmer Rouge forces, but the gate inspired many of those who found refuge behind it, including French ethnologist François Bizot, author of The Gate, a poetic portal into life within the embassy when the Khmer Rouge took the city.

Returning to the embassy in 1988, at the onset of the rainy season, Bizot wrote about the flood of memories that overtook him upon viewing the gate.

“Could [the builders of the gate] imagined this assemblage would one day be the instrument of such dramatic events? I couldn’t understand why an embassy should have such a shoddy gate, or how such fragile mesh could have resisted so many strong hopes or opened itself to so many heavy wrongs,” he wrote in 1988, likening the gate to a small altar erected to the spirits of the several million killed.

When Bizot wrote the passage above, the embassy grounds had from 1986 to 1991 been transformed into an orphanage before Paris Peace agreement was signed and diplomatic relations were restored between the Kingdom and France, according to Nicolas Baudouin, first secretary at the French Embassy.

“The gate is so simply made and could never have withstood forceful entry if Khmer Rouge forces had truly desired to enter,” he said, adding that the original gate was discovered once the grounds were reclaimed by the French, “naturally, kept as testimony.”

A Cambodian woman runs to the entrance of the French Embassy in Phnom Penh in 1975
A Cambodian woman runs to the entrance of the French Embassy in Phnom Penh in 1975. ROLAND NEVEU

Bizot never responded to interview requests, but a friend who also sought refuge at the embassy during the same time period, Father François Ponchaud, guessed this was because of the recent death of one of his two daughters.

Bizot and Ponchaud have not spoken in years, but Ponchaud describes him as a friend, both of them fluent in Khmer and charged with translating from Khmer to French and French to Khmer while stationed inside the gate.

“We came to Cambodia together, we left together, and we stayed near the gate together,” the priest said wistfully during an interview this week.

The current layout of the embassy copycats the blueprint left in 1975, originally built in the 1950s, and designed by a French team of architects working under former Prime Minister Edouard Balladur.

The buildings were later renovated in 1993, into what Ponchaud says is a less-attractive version of its former self.

“The building is now only iron and concrete, like a block house. It was once very beautiful. When I came to the embassy after the Khmer Rouge invaded, the buildings were overflowing with people.

My colleague and I slept underneath a bamboo tree for three weeks,” he said, drawing images of tree branches as he time-travelled back to an era marked by astounding violence. In his own version of events documented in his book Cambodia: Year Zero, Ponchaud briefly describes the asylum seekers’ surroundings but, in person, he couldn’t speak of the embassy grounds without drawing small images of it on paper.

“The embassy used to be in a square, with about 100 metres on each side of it and held three buildings.… I remember the first time several groups of revolutionaries tried to force the embassy gates when they first arrived in town,” he said, as he mapped out the old grounds with a black pen.

Foreigners and Cambodian nationals seeking refuge from advancing Khmer Rouge forces stand outside the French Embassy in 1975
Foreigners and Cambodian nationals seeking refuge from advancing Khmer Rouge forces stand outside the French Embassy in 1975. ROLAND NEVEU

Ponchaud, who these days holds a Cambodian passport, arrived in the country more than 50 years ago, on November 4, 1965, as a representative for the Christian Association. He fell for it hard.

Wearing a white button-down shirt with ink stains peeking through the breast pocket, Ponchaud has a smile that easily draws back his weather-beaten skin and a set of fiercely clear blue eyes that were unwavering as he spoke of the “surreal time” spent at the embassy.

“Life was unrealistic – we were all inside the embassy, left alone in an empty city. It was the end of one world: The old world was finished; a new world was beginning,” Ponchaud said, gesticulating so wildly that at one point he cut his hand open when he struck it against a desk.

Photojournalist Roland Ne­veu, one of the last to remain in the country, was also among those that sought refuge at the embassy.

He remembered the final days as constantly switching between devastating boredom and jarring tension with the flick of a light.

Those trapped in the embassy at the time of the invasion spent three weeks in a building containing 19th-century Yunnan carpets, a grand piano and a lavish supply of Cuban cigars and alcohol.

The original gate that blocked Khmer Rouge forces as they entered Phnom Penh in April 1975 standing inside the French Embassy compound in Phnom Penh earlier this month
The original gate that blocked Khmer Rouge forces as they entered Phnom Penh in April 1975 standing inside the French Embassy compound in Phnom Penh earlier this month. VIREAK MAI

But the conditions were far from glamorous.

“We had very little food and water after three or four days in the compound. The media had been assigned to stay in the ambassador’s residence, so we were lucky enough to still have air-conditioning in the final days, especially because after three or four days in the compound, everyone was running out of water,” Neveu said.

Neveu reminisced about a self-assigned American “adventurer” by the name of Doug Saper, who had a “dip in the special forces”, and managed to successfully gather and distribute the excess water pooling in the last two operating air conditioners.

Pigs were delivered to the embassy by revolutionaries and, with no way to access services outside the gate, a surgeon from Calmette hospital was tasked with the slaughtering, Ponchaud said.

He chuckled as he admitted to enjoying the alcohol discovered within the embassy, saying it was a blessed respite from the endless card games and conversations the embassy’s occupants engaged in for distraction.

“We said it was not necessary to give to the Khmer Rouge. No, we preferred to drink it ourselves.”

When asked about his memories of the gate, Neveu revealed he returned to Cambodia in 1989 but wasn’t allowed entry into the embassy.

“It was such an ordinary gate, so small and unspecific, not even close to looking like a work of art. It should be in front of the embassy, out in the open like a memory, a symbol for everyone,” Neveu said.

Today, the gate is not accessible to the public, and Baudouin confirmed that of the small number of requests to view the original gate, few are granted because of the gate’s proximity to the ambassador’s residence.

“Security concerns pose too much of a risk,” he said.

Ponchaud, for his part, still sleeps deeply at night despite living through and witnessing moments like Pol Pot’s troops demanding that Jean Dyrac, French vice-consul and last representative of the French government in the city, surrender the final Cambodians housed in the embassy, a fate that meant certain execution.

“We can’t be sad, because we lived. During my period in the embassy I was never depressed because it was my job to give strength to the Cambodians … a people given a terrible fortune,” Ponchaud said quietly. “We were so lucky, so very lucky.”

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