François Bizot has produced a major book for our understanding of Democratic
t is a classic first by the quality of its writing, the beauty of its descriptions
(both Cambodian landscapes and portraits of people), the vividness of the dialogue
- with Duch in particular - the intensity of the rendering of his inner thoughts.
It is a highly personal memoir, and, mingled with his distress after the loss of
a revered father, is the grief at the loss of an École Française d'Extrême-Orient-perceived
timeless Cambodia, with the brutal invasion of the North Vietnamese troops in the
wake of the fall of Norodom Sihanouk on 18 March 1970. All this not to speak of Bizot's
(unspeakable but sensed) pangs of remorse at having left behind, on 8 May 1975, the
mysterious "Mother of Helen", when crossing that fateful Poipet bridge
that divided Thailand from the dae-monic utopia of the Khmer Rouge.
At that point this tiny group of diehard believers in total revolution were handed
the administration of outlying villages which they soon "grasped hold of",
using terror as a paramount instrument of control. Also, through the revelations
of Comrade Thep, a middle-aged detainee about to be freed, we understand how then
easily malleable adolescents could be forcefully enrolled into the budding army and
Khmer Rouge forces inexorably snowballed.
Bizot's rage at the criminality of American interference, Vietnamese brutality and
Khmer Rouge ruthlessness in front of the sweeping destruction of a country he idolized
might be partly explained by his own deep remorse for having taken almost 30 years
before recounting in full detail his extraordinarily revealing experience of life
as a prisoner of the Khmer Communists, three and a half years before their regime
came into existence.
One cannot help wondering what would have been the impact of his revelations had
he not imparted them exclusively to his peers at the École and to French diplomats
at an embassy dinner after his release on Christmas 1971. But, then, it was politically
incorrect in the West to print anything that would sully the reputation of those
who were perceived by the media as disinterested patriots.
Le Portail is divided into two neatly equal parts. The first relates Bizot's arrest
and imprisonment by Duch in a secret jungle prison in the Cardamom mountains from
October to December 1971; the second half tells the story of those fateful weeks,
from 17 April to 8 May 1975 when the remaining representatives of the international
community were trapped in the compound of the French Embassy in Phnom Penh. Its rather
flimsy gate became for Bizot the symbol that divided the gigantic Gulag or forced
labour camp into which the victorious Khmer Rouge had overnight tranformed their
war-torn country from a Free World the French authorities were desperately struggling
to maintain at the time.
In part one, the Gate is metaphorical, it is the Gate opening unto the utopia of
absolute certitudes of the Marxist-Leninist revolution here and now. The Gate of
part two divides the shelter of the French Embassy and the inferno of a capital being
emptied of its inhabitants.
The coherence of these two memoirs is above all provided by François Bizot's
personality. It is a combination of undaunted courage, or rather fearlessness, with
a sense of empathy not only with the souls of the human beings he encounters, but
also the animals, plants and landscapes.
Still, as a measure of Bizot's distress, can one not reproach the author with having
a vision of pre-1970 Cambodia which was too idealized, timeless, and in the end patronizing?
Even in those comparatively happy times, his pre-revolutionary beloved country had
its darker sides also.
An almost physical love for the "land of the Khmers"made him as blind as
a lover. And why should the object of his passionate study - Cambodia - be equated,
albeit unwittingly, to the emblematic Mother of my daughter? Has she no name or identity
? But the reader must be reassured : although the Mother of Helen had to suffer the
torments of life under the Khmer Rouge in Kompong Thom province, she is now happy
and in good health, well surrounded by both her Khmer and French relatives. Is not
all that rather manufactured mystery part of a needless over-dramatization?
In his dialogues with Khmer Rouge Kamaphibals, Bizot manages to shun platitudes while
his command of the Khmer language enables him to deftly manipulate their revolutionary
cant. He adamantly refuses to abide by the rules of the game set by Angkar, in which
everyone plays a part.
By being his own self, he forces his revolutionary interlocutors to quit the artificial
realm of ideology and be plain human beings with their weaknesses. His knowledge
of Khmer Buddhism and centuries-old lore and mores far surpassed what these mostly
urban Sino-Khmers of the revolutionary leadership knew about their country's history.
He makes them appear for what they really were : new colonialists who were inflicting
on their compatriots a most barbaric and dogmatic foreign ideology. Besides, he had
the pluck to tell them in their faces they were in fact the puppets of foreign ambitions.
A major objection to Bizot's rendition of his dialogues with his mental torturer
- Duch - is that, after all these years, some might question their authenticity,
as if they were too good to be true. My conviction is that these pages are absolutely
authentic. More authentic than the Tuol Sleng archives, I have no hesitation in suggesting,
since Bizot talked candidly, not under torture - quite - in spite of the unuttered
threat of death. And this is Bizot's tour de force. The great revelation of the book,
the one that unnerves everyone of us is that, after all is being said about the barbarity
of a totalitarian system, the bureaucrats of death are human beings like ourselves
- all of us. And what is there to guarantee that one day we might not become a Duch,
given the circumstances in which he found himself : "...was it not simply the
man in him that was being jeopardized ? For I was not facing an abysmal monster,
but a human being that nature had conditioned to kill."
In 1971, Bizot had been caught in this spider's web which had woven its net throughout
the world - the Communist revolution. Duch and the security machine he embodied was
only the latest avatar of Lenin's Cheka, created just after the October 1917 coup
in Russia. Precisely like his masters in Moscow, Peking and Hanoi, Duch, the "commissar-interrogator",
required Bizot himself to tell why he had been arrested. It was up to the victim
to confess his crimes.
What Bizot did not suspect however was that Omleang prison, in the Cardamom mountains,
where, blindfolded, he was led on foot, was not the only detention centre in the
"liberated" areas controlled by the guerilla movement. Just as, under Democratic
Kampuchea, S-21 was not the Khmer Rouge's only prison-interrogation centre, so, during
the civil war (1969-75), the Khmer Rouge had set up a number of these infernal dens
where they kept their victims tied to iron bars. The detainees were mostly escapees
from the forced collectivisation of Khmer Rouge controlled territory or soldiers
from the Lon Nol army.
Three and a half years before the final takeover, the scene for the Totalitarian
State of Democratic Kampuchea was fully set - with, at its centre a network of prisons.
On his arrival, Bizot persuaded
his captors that his ankles were too wide to fit into the iron rings devised for
Asian legs. He was then able to avoid both the promiscuity and the humiliation of
the collective "khnoh" by being only tied by chain to the wooden pole of
the shack where paddy was kept. He also insisted that he needed to wash every day
in the nearby stream - while his companions remained chained till death.
By being set aside from the other detainees, the Frenchman secured one more major
concession: he was spared the diet of clear rice soup, devised to gradually starve
inmates to death within three months. Still, as a white man, he benefitted from a
special treatment, as he did not belong to this Cambodian culture of subservience
to authority which made the Khmer Rouge aim of total control distinctly easier.
Through Bizot's perceptive portrait of Duch, we understand the puzzling transition
from utopia to terror. Duch, the obedient servant of the Revolution, was prepared
to inflict on his compatriots many of the tortures of hell in order to take the few
survivors all the way toheaven on earth. The doctrinaire became infuriated when Bizot
attempted to open his eyes to reality: he was playing in the hands of the Vietnamese
and using methods of discipline and renunciation akin to the Buddhist tradition,
but in fact borrowed from Maoist re-education techniques.
It is a pity though, that the author did not explain to the reader, in so many words,
as he did in an interview with Le Figaro, that it was Pol Pot himself who took the
decision to free him in the face of dire opposition from Duch's immediate superiors
- Ta Mok and Vorn Veth in particular. This makes Duch sound less of a hero. As later,
he was strictly obeying orders, not showing himself in any way humane and ready to
take initiatives that Angkar would disapprove of. This indeed is also what Bizot
himself declares : Duch merely dutifully implemented Angkar's decisions.
After their final victory, on 17 April 1975, the Khmer Rouge leadership spared all
the lives, too, of the approximately 200 remaining employees of the Angkor Conservation,
including their families. Scattered in small collectives of only 30 families in a
couple of villages around the Roluos site, east of Siem Reap, they all survived D
K. Obviously Angkar had plans for the future preservation of Angkor. Were those in
part suggested by Bizot's heroic behaviour ?
In April 1975, Bizot was no more impressed by the revolutionary verbiage of Comrade
Nhem, the main interlocutor of the French Consul, Jean Dyrac. He spoke directly to
the man. Bizot stood up to Angkar's commands and, in the name of the foreign community
trapped in the precincts of the French Embassy, dared to voice to the baffled representative
of Angkar a number of legitimate demands. Some could be met, like the supply of minimal
food or medicine; some could not, like the acceptance of the privileges of extra-territoriality
for the French Embassy or the use of Pochentong airport for French aircraft.
Although the authorities did manage to forge a number of French passports for Khmer
nationals, there was absolutely no alternative but to ask prominent personalities
like Prince Sirik Matak to leave the premises. Otherwise Khmer Rouge soldiers and
their weapons would have marched into what the French authorities insisted must remain
a weapons-free zone.
And so the French gendarmerie had to refuse to open the fateful Gates and let in
Prince Sisowath [Monireth], a dignified gentleman in his seventies. He, whom everyone
expected to be the next King when his father Sisowath Monivong died in 1941, wearing
his French Légion d'honneur, was made to walk past. One of the most poignant
pages is the sight of this august figure slowly marching along Monivong Boulevard
to a possible imminent death. Yet, according to the Khmer Rouge leadership, and unlike
Prince Sirik Matak, he might not have been assassinated. He is said to have been
treated with some deference for his age and position and to have died a natural death
(untreated diabetes) in the district of Stoeung Trang, Kompong Cham province.
The tragedy had its moment of comic relief. As an illustration of France's intellectual
history is the description of the arrival of the two French couples, the Steinbachs
and the Martinies, both members of the French Communist Party, exhilirated by what
they saw around them in the Cambodian capital. They fraternized with the baffled
young Khmer Rouge soldiers, donned the black clothes and Ho Chi Minh sandals to mimick
But Angkar would have no role for these puppets, and to their great pique the Khmer
Rouge soldiers shoved them into the Embassy. There, they got what they deserved -
a spectacular slap in the face for Jean-Pierre Martinie, one of the transvestite
intellectuals, with orders to go and change !
His determination and fearlessness enabled Bizot to scout the deserted streets of
Phnom Penh to collect food and trace the few remaining foreigners. Once, he came
close to meeting his death when he sneaked through the deserted streets of the capital,
in the desperate hope of saving some ancient manuscripts collected by the École
Française d'Extrême Orient, and had suddenly to face the kalashnikov
of one adolescent soldier. There and then, Bizot was indeed the fearless hero. However
Comrade Nhem, the soldier cum political commissar, was not of the same mettle. Like
Duch, he was merely obeying orders. The French Embassy being situated in the northern
section of the capital, the area fell under the responsibility of Udor soldiers.
All decisions were taken by Angkar Lúu and it was probably Pol Pot who, once again,
had decided to spare foreign passport holders, just as he had decided to earlier
to free Bizot.
The defiant author has walked the untrodden territory between life and death in a
world ruled by fervent idealists in quest of the absolute. We catch glimpses of a
Duch who could become the abysmal monster able to lash out at the vermin that infects
the minds...the rot that has infested the very hearts of our families. For him the
duplicity of those traitors would drive him into a passion : "...the only way
for me is to terrorise them, isolate them, starve them... When I interrogate them,
they use all tricks not to speak, thus depriving our leadership of information that
could be vital ; then I hit ! I hit until I become breathless myself !"
In a similar vein, Bizot's perceptive pen enables us to glimpse Nhem's anger when
the French authorities refuse to cut their radio connections with Paris. "The
revolutionary fervour that is the mother of all crimes had suddenly given birth to
all bad instincts in his eyes - from cruelty to sadism, from ferocity to dementia."
Still paradoxically, beyond the fiendish Khmer Rouge, Bizot was able to sense the
man; here is another unforgettable description of Duch's eyes : "So, in the
night, I saw, on this man moulded by certitudes, fleeting transparent veils taking
their harshness to shreds and powdering them with unsuspected sweetness."
Beyond the torturer there always remains the man. Bizot had discovered the truth
Tzvetan Todorov dares to suggest: evildoers are not radically different from oneself.
The odyssey of the 1046 official refugees (656 Fench citizens, 390 foreigners), plus
a couple of dozens illegal asylum seekers, ended in Poipet on 8 May 1975. Through
the author's singular perceptiveness and vivid rendering, those dramatic weeks at
the French Embassy now fully enter history - and literature.
The French version of Le Portail is on sale at Mekong Libris.