Francois Bizot worked in Cambodia as a young Frenchman in the 1960s and 1970s. An ethnologist employed by the Angkor Conservation Office, he restored ceramics and bronzes from the temples and researched Buddhism. He lived in a village near Angkor Wat with his Cambodian partner and their infant daughter when, in 1971, he was captured by the Khmer Rouge. They had already surreptitiously infiltrated large tracts of the countryside, recruiting child soldiers from rural peasant areas and training them for the revolution. Battles raged between these revolutionaries and the Vietnamese who had crossed the border areas as a part of their own war, using Cambodian soil for military bases and other strategic purposes. This Vietnamese presence attracted the wrath of America, under the leadership of President Richard Nixon and his Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger. They ordered a top secret bombing campaign on Cambodia which dropped more bombs than the whole of World War II and is said to have given rise to Khmer Rouge support.
Alongside two Khmer colleagues who he was traveling with, Bizot was chained and marched off to a remote and very primitive Khmer Rouge prison where he was interrogated amid accusations of being an agent for American imperialism. The head of this small but brutal prison where an unknown number were tortured and murdered, was a Khmer Rouge leader known as Brother Duch. Through the interrogations Bizot and Duch developed a mutual respect for each other. Duch eventually fought, at some personal risk to himself, for Bizot’s innocence and release, petitioning the highest ranks including Pol Pot. After three months Bizot was released. He learned years later that he was the only survivor of this camp. His two companions were taken to the forest and bludgeoned to death, as was the case for most prisoners of the Khmer Rouge. Bizot is also the only westerner arrested by the Khmer Rouge, to have survived.
Upon his release Bizot remained in Cambodia. When the Khmer Rouge marched on Phnom Penh in April 1975, his wife and daughter were forced to evacuate the city along with all other Cambodians. Bizot found himself in the French Embassy with a thousand western refugees who were held captive behind the embassy gate for months until they were finally convoyed to the Thai border. Fluent in Khmer, Bizot acted as intermediary between the embassy’s refugees and their revolutionary captors. He wrote The Gate thirty years after these experiences, as an account of his time as a Khmer Rouge prisoner both at Duch’s rural prison in 1971 and again at the Phnom Penh embassy in 1975. His exposure to the cruel, irrational and all-encompassing power of the Khmer Rouge and the brutality he witnessed, haunts him to this day. As he watched one young girl he had tried to save, marched to her inevitable death, he says “she looked at me, and her eyes, hollow with fear, bored two black holes into my brain that have never stopped deepening”.
Brother Duch, who was responsible for Bizot’s survival in 1971, became the head of the Khmer Rouge security police and director of Tuol Sleng Prison, also known as S21. This was the biggest of the many interrogation and torture prisons established by the Khmer Rouge and is now known as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. These prisons were used to force false confessions out of people to prove that an internal enemy was working from within Cambodia, which justified the Khmer Rouge’s brutal and murderous actions in the name of protecting Cambodia. When they were overpowered by the Vietnamese in 1979 only seven prisoners survived Tuol Sleng, which had imprisoned, tortured and executed tens of thousands of innocent victims. At the very last minute, before fleeing Phnom Penh, Duch arranged a few last-minute executions. During a visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in 1988 Bizot was shocked to recognise a photograph of Duch, identified as the Director of the prison and known as “The Butcher of Tuol Sleng”.
Now 72yo, Duch remained free for many years before surrendering to authorities in 1999 after being discovered by two western journalists who recognised him from photographs in Tuol Sleng. His trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Extroardinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia only took place in 2010. The ECCC continue to hold trials against former Khmer Rouge cadre to this day. Unlike many others who remain unrepentant, Duch expressed regret and sorrow for his actions during his trial, although he then also made a plea for release! His capacity for cruelty is astonishing and distressing, made all the more so by the knowledge that he was academically quite brilliant, and by Bizot’s portrayal of him as someone with a desire for morality and justice.
The Gate is a terrible, insightful look at the destruction which was poured on Cambodia by power hungry beasts of inhumanity. It is not just a biographical account of one man’s experience, but a portrayal of the ambiguous nature of humankind, existing at once as good, moral, heartless and cruel. My favourite quote from the book remains relevant in the political climate of today’s world. Bizot could be describing any number of today’s world leaders in this comment about a specific young cadre who helped lead the convoy of westerners to the Thai border and out of Cambodia in 1975.
He was the sort of man who is never deterred by obstacles, but as a consequence, like so many power fanatics, he looked on the suffering of weak and anonymous creatures with total contempt.
Francois Bizot, The Gate
As an addendum, The Gate does not provide detail about the fate of Bizot’s wife and daughter so I Googled it. He discovered in 1979 that they had survived the revolution. They were reunited and married but the relationship did not last. He remarried and had children with a French woman. His first daughter is Helene Bizot, who has a child with French actor Gerard Depardieu. She is often mistaken erroneously for a French actress of the same name.