A few weeks ago, I was reading an interview with Kapka Kassabova (author of Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe), where she tells LitHub that the best book she read this year was "The Gate by François Bizot, which I picked up while in Cambodia. Like all truly great political writing, it is forever enlightening. It leaves you stunned and changed. I urge everyone to read it, especially at this point in time." I was immediately sold.
Bizot, I learned, was the only Western Khmer Rouge prisoner to be freed. Before you go on, a quick history lesson: the Khmer Rouge = Cambodian communists; perpetrated the Cambodian genocide; victorious in the Cambodian Civil War.
Bizot - an anthropologist fluent in Khmer, French & English - traveled to Cambodia to study Buddhism. He married a Cambodian woman and had a daughter named Hélène in 1968. In October 1971, the Khmer Rouge captured Bizot (French) and his two colleagues (Cambodian). The Khmer Rouge charged Bizot of being a CIA agent and imprisoned him; at the prison camp, Bizot was kept separate from the other prisoners and chained to a post, with two chickens as his companions. Each day, he freely spoke with the camp's leader / was interrogated by the camp's leader, Comrade Duch. Bizot and Duch's unlikely friendship -- friendship may not be the right word, perhaps mutual respect -- contributed to Bizot's release; Duch eventually convinces the Khmer Rouge leadership of Bizot's innocence. Bizot is freed after three months. Duch would go on to be the chief of the infamous prison Tuol Sleng, Pol Pot's secret prison, where an estimated over 20,000 were killed. This is the heart of The Gate: "This terrible man was not duplicitous. All he had were principles and convictions: he was a pure, fervent idealist." As The Guardian aptly points out, "it was Duch's idealism which saved Bizot's life, and that it was Duch's idealism which also led to the death of so many people at Tuol Sleng."
As Bizot writes in a New York Times piece titled "My Savior, Their Killer": (to give you a sense of his writing style):
Duch was in charge of the jungle camp, both my jailer and my prosecutor. I was kept in chains and interrogated daily by him. Somehow, during the strange dialogue that began between us, he became convinced that I really was just a Frenchman who wanted to study Buddhist texts. Duch undertook to secure my release. My two Khmer assistants did not have the same good fortune: despite Duch’s promise to me, they were executed soon after I left the camp, as so many thousands were in the years to come under his meticulous supervision.
I did not see Duch again until 2003, in the military prison in Phnom Penh. Conditions there were rudimentary, but the general feel was not that of a jail. I remember that he had the same look of determination that he had had 32 years earlier, though the smile that he had occasionally flashed when he ruled over my fate was gone.
In the whirl of conflicting emotions provoked by seeing him again, I asked him: “How are things here? Is it all right?” Compelled to repeat the question, I felt its incongruity: the executioner was now on the other side of the gate, as I had foreseen in my dreams, in the place once occupied by his victims.
.... The genocide of the Khmer Rouge will be judged as a “crime against humanity,” a crime against ourselves. As such, Duch’s guilt exceeds his immediate victims; it becomes the guilt of humanity, in the name of all victims. Duch killed mankind. The trial of the Khmer Rouge should be an opportunity for each of us to gaze at the torturer with some distance — from beyond the intolerable cry of the suffering, which may veil the truth of the abomination. The only way to look at the torturer is to humanize him.
Bizot wrote The Gate wrote nearly 30 years after his experience in the Cambodian jungle. The second half of the story details when Bizot took refuge at the French embassy in Phnom Penh - and acted as translator/go-between for the Khmer Rouge and the foreign officials. The title takes its name from the gate of the embassy. Encouraged by John Le Carré to tell his tale, he writes as a release. At the end, he writes: ''I am purged of my ghosts, I have emptied my memory. I close 'The Gate' behind me.''