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Francois Bizot – The Gate interview

April 1st, 2004 · No Comments

Francois Bizot spent 90 days in a Khmer Rouge death camp, saw the fall of Phnom Penh, and was inspired to write his account by John Le Carré. He tells Greg Lowe how it feels to have your life saved by a murderer.

Francois Bizot has a unique story to tell. Not only is he thought to be the only Westerner to survive a Khmer Rouge prison camp during the bloody slaughter that ravaged Cambodia in the 1970s, but he owes his life to a mass murderer.

Bizot’s saviour was Douch — aka Kang Kek Leu — the commandant of Anglon Ven camp where he was imprisoned for three months in 1971. Douch later became chief interrogator and commandant at the infamous Tuol Sleng/S-21 camp — a converted school which became one of the Killing Fields’ most notorious death camps — where he oversaw the torture and execution of 14,000-20,000 people. Only between seven and 14 are believed to have survived.

Sitting in the downstairs bar of Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondent’s Club, taking a break from the International Literary Festival at the Fringe Club next door, the 64-year-old silver-haired Frenchman, dressed in a brown sports jacket, beige shirt, and tie, reflects on his time spent in Cambodia in the 60s and 70s. He talks about how he was captured and freed, and how a phone call in 1998 led him to write The Gate, his account of these turbulent times.

“I got a phone call one morning from Nate Thayer [an American journalist]. He said. ‘I’ve found Douch, he’s alive in Cambodia. ’ It took me a while to realise what he meant, then it hit me, ” Bizot tells New Arrivals, adding that it inevitably meant reliving his harrowing memories and bitter experiences of Cambodia.

“For me there was no catharsis in writing The Gate, instead I had to go back and relive those experiences and emotions. I was happy before I wrote my book, but now I am miserable. I wonder if I can ever be happy again. ”

These feelings are a far cry from his first impressions and experiences on arrival in Cambodia in 1965. Then it was a country steeped in a rich Buddhist culture and tradition, a place where “nothing was conceived without art, and poetry, and mystery”. It was these elements, specifically the Buddhist scriptures and carvings, that the young French scholar had come to study for the École Francais.

During one of his daily excursions around Angkor Wat on October 10, 1971, Bizot was arrested by a Khmer Rouge squad led by a North Vietnamese officer. Suspected of being a CIA agent, he was taken to a village prison camp with his Cambodian colleagues Lay and Son.

It was here that Bizot met Douch, who over the next 90 days interrogated him on a daily basis about his activities in Cambodia, and whether he was CIA, or a French agent.

During this time Bizot built up a relationship with his captor, and as they got to know each other the Frenchman was given more freedom, unchained from his tree opposite the camp’s gates, and allowed to wash in the river. As the guards relaxed their watch, he gradually became more courageous, travelling further afield and scouting out possible escape routes.

One day he found a hut where prisoners had been beaten and tortured. While he was shocked by his discovery, a later conversation with Douch was to horrify him further.

“When I found the hut, I knew people were being beaten and tortured and I thought I knew who was doing it, there was a big guard who was really unpleasant. But when I found out it was Douch, I was shocked.

“It was this man committed to justice, who wanted to do good. But he didn’t like liars and he would beat them to tell the truth. To him everyone who came to the camp was a liar.

“I always thought these things, these atrocities were done by other people, but the biggest shock that I got, and I still suffer from, is that they’re not done by other people, they’re done by people like us. That is what I learnt from Douch. ”

In January 2000, Bizot returned to Anglon Ven camp with a local guide and a map penned by Douch, who was, and still is, in prison awaiting trial for his war crimes.

Bizot is Anglon Ven’s only survivor. The rest, including Lay and Son, were beaten to death by their captors.

“They were taken into the woods and killed. Apparently they [the Khmer Rouge] used spades to save bullets, and so the rest of us in the camp wouldn’t hear. We knew people were being taken away, but I guess we didn’t accept they were being killed at the time, because to do so meant we accepted it would happen to us. ”

In the four years following Bizot’s release, Pol Pot’s pyjama-clad Khmer Rouge revolutionaries emerged from the depths of the dense jungles, with their ideological fervour letting loose a slaughter that would transform the country into a perpetual kill zone, leaving in excess of 2 million people, over 25 per cent of the population, dead by 1979.

Six months before the fall of Phnom Penh Bizot managed to get his daughter Helene smuggled out of the country to safety, and, while his Cambodian wife Choung stayed in her village, he holed up in the French Embassy.

Filling the roles of go-between, interpreter and translator, Bizot was one of the only foreigners allowed to travel outside of the Embassy. In the last days in Phnom Penh he would see American journalist Denis Cameron caught trying to steal the Embassy’s silverware, people desert their Cambodian wives, and local children being forced into the Khmer Rouge’s ranks. On arrival in Thailand, Bizot hired a team of Cambodian commandos to go back rescue his wife.

However, while despising the Khmer Rouge, he despaired of Western intellectuals whose opposition to Vietnam deafened them to the horror stories told by the Cambodian refugees who started to filter into Thailand.

“Something could have been done. But because people were against American involvement in Vietnam, they were for the Khmer Rouge. ”

Bizot jokes about how his friend John Le Carré promised to write the foreword to The Gate. Apparently Le Carré was so pleased the book wasn’t terrible that he praised the book, “making it sound better than it probably is”.

In his forward Le Carré describes Bizot as a man who has the “authority of pain”, gained from his trials in Cambodia. This authenticity pervades his speech and written words. Not only is The Gate a must-read for those interested in Southeast Asian politics and history, but it also provides a valuable lesson in how too often tyranny lurks behind supposedly honourable motivations.

“I will never understand the concept of man killing man for the good of man, ” he says.

Perhaps this is Bizot’s most simple and sobering thought.

Tags: books · interviews

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