François Bizot – The Gate

Posted on | February 8, 2014 | No Comments

I visited Cambodia in September 2013, and prior to the trip, I purchased Bizot’s memoir detailing his days in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge. While I didn’t have the time to read the book before landing in the Cambodian capital, I did visit the Killing Fields and the Museum of Genocide. Both left me speechless, and sick to my stomach. The tour of the Killing Fields was particularly haunting. Pits were cordoned off, and the audio guides told us what was discovered in each of these pits. Mostly corpses, unsurprisingly. However, the Killing Tree was marked as well – the tree against which the heads of babies and children were smashed, before being tossed into the nearby pit. People do that? Kill innocent babies, who under no circumstance could be CIA agents? The xenophobia and irrational spirit of nationalism resulted in the internal conflict, driven by the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. Over twenty thousand people died. My camera was clutched in my hand, but I couldn’t bring myself to take any photographs. I just listened to the audio guide, and read the text. Months later, I still remember it all. Months later, I remain despondent that the main perpetrators are still awaiting trial. Pol Pot is dead; I suppose we can all find some solace in that.

This is me, as a visitor, seeing things at the very surface. The audio guides prompted us to put ourselves in the shoes of the prisoners, and it remains something beyond the scope of my imagination. Even my worst nightmare isn’t horrific enough. Bizot’s memoir details him actually living through that nightmare, after a sequence of unreal, unfortunate events. An ethnologist drawn to Cambodia by the mysteries of the Far East, Bizot was imprisoned on suspicion that he was a CIA agent impersonating as an academic. While there was no concrete evidence to even suggest that this was the case, he was kept captive for approximately three months, while the powers that be tried finding the relevant evidence. Duch, an officer in the Khmer hierarchy, responsible for “overseeing the systematic torture of 15,000 prisoners,” questioned (and over the course of the questioning, befriended) Bizot daily, trying to determine his innocence, and subsequent release. During this period, Bizot was given special treatment, compared to the rest of the prisoners, and yet, he witnessed all the atrocities. And yet, years later, at Duch goes on trial, Bizot still empathises with his friend, who ensured Bizot’s freedom.

Eventually, he was released, and found himself as a translator at the French embassy. The scenes that follow depict the pandemonium as people tried to get out of the country, with or without their families, as the massacres increased exponentially. Bizot’s own daughter was safe, but as a reader, we’re never given any insight into what happened to his Cambodian wife. Yet, the hands of the French were tied, as they weren’t allowed to provide asylum to the locals. The Khmer Rule had made that abundantly clear, including storming into the Embassy with guns, and shutting down their communications with France. Even members of Cambodian royalty aren’t exempt from the rules. Nor women with babies, who try to fling their babies over the gates of the embassy, just so that the babies might have a chance at a future.

Through time, people have turned a blind eye to the genocide in Cambodia. The opening chapter of the book, where Bizot describes Cambodia prior to the Khmer era, is poetic. It started as an ode to a beautiful idyll-like country cherishing peace, which one can imagine with a tinge of lament. It’s always a shame when peace and tranquility descends into oppression and hatred, in the hands of dictators like Pol Pot. The title of the book refers to the gate of the French embassy, which once, of such importance, now has a diminutive stature in the eyes of the author, as he looks back in anger upon the events that unfolded.

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