Michael Batson

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Travelogue

François Bizot's 'The Gate' and the Spirits of the Dead - 3 June 2020

I had never read François Bizot’s seminal book ‘The Gate’ but had always seen it for sale. Then a friend gave me a copy. It is said it should be numbered among the great post-Second World-War memoirs of incarceration and is noted for ‘its intense dignity, by its unexpected attention to beauty, and by a discretion which never shades into coyness’. Novelist John Le Cárre wrote the forward to the most widely known English edition and said the book is “that rarest thing an original classic”. Bizot’s claim to fame is as the only Westerner to have survived captivity by the Khmer Rouge. Later he was witness to extraordinary scenes following the fall of the Cambodian capital to Khmer Rouge forces as ‘official interpreter’ at the French Embassy in daily touch with the guerrilla force commanders and the only person allowed to leave the compound as the city was being emptied.

 

On Boxing Day 1971, Bizot walked away from a jungle prison in Cambodia after three months of captivity by Khmer Rouge guerrillas. He returned to his life of scholarly research into Khmer Buddhism this time in a new direction—the study of texts written in Khmer. From liberation in 1971 to 1975, he roamed around accessible areas of the ancient kingdom collecting and copying Buddhist texts preserved in villages and pagodas. He worked for the École française d'Extrême-Orient (French School of the Far East) known as EFEO on Monivong Boulevard, which since 1907, has been in charge of conservation work at the archaeological site of Angkor, where he often stayed.

 

It would take him almost 30 years to recount his experience in print. In 2000 his story was published to acclaim in France as “Le Portail”; then translated into English as “The Gate”. What finally prompted Bizot to write his book was neither the memory of his near-death experience but rather, he said, it was his need to understand the horror that followed.

 

There are many editions of the book, French and English, but the cover photo of the most widely distributed English edition was taken by freelance war photographer Oliver Noonan, who was killed in a helicopter crash near Da Nang in 1969. The photo is bleak and two-tone, with a column of figures vaguely military in outline and of indeterminate origin moving left to right from the back page to the cover. It may not even be Cambodia. Noonan spent most of his time in Vietnam. The design wouldn’t win any awards for graphics.

 

Another edition, much more attractive, shows one of the gates at Angkor Thom with its distinctive lotus towers and images of Jayavarman VII, the temple builder. A French edition, entitled Le Portail (also the name of the subsequent film), shows two Khmer Rouge figures, one Duch (or Douch pronounced Doo-ik), one of the book’s central characters; part saviour, part nemesis of Bizot and his chief interrogator, with Khmer writing in the background which translates as ‘find something true’. Duch went on to notoriety as the chief of S-21, a torture centre in Phnom Penh, now a curious tourist attraction, where thousands of mainly Khmer cadres were interrogated and sent for execution. He is the only Khmer Rouge figure ever imprisoned for crimes against humanity.

 

Bizot’s book can always be found in the Cambodia section of the few remaining second hand bookshops in Phnom Penh or among those for sale by the street vendors on Riverside or other tourist hotspots. There you can always find the usual suspects on Cambodia: Chandler, Kiernan, Lewis, Swain, Becker, Kamm, Shawcross, Short, Strangio, and Brinkley, among the Anglophiles, Khmers too, and others, Francophones—academics, travel writers, journalists and survivors of genocide—their works interspersed with dog-eared or pirated Lonely Planet and pocket phrasebooks. The originals can be found at the magnificent Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard, but at Western prices, elsewhere you pay USD3-4.

 

Le Portail with Duch (left)

‘The Gate’ is particularly interesting for Bizot’s insight into the dynamic between captive and captor, and his eyewitness account of Phnom Penh after the capture of the city by the Khmer Rouge guerillas in April 1975, followed by the departure of the remaining foreigners to Thailand before Cambodia fell silent cut-off from the world. Bizot’s unique role was as official interpreter for the French Embassy having been appointed by the commander of the Khmer Rouge Northern Front, Comrade Nhem (a French-speaking Khmer while Bizot was a Khmer-speaking Frenchman) and the French consul (the ambassador had already left). Eventually, he was the only person authorised to leave the embassy compound, sometimes several times a day. As such he spent much time during that three-week period in April and early May, driving around the capital as it was being emptied of its citizens, and transformed into ‘Year Zero’.

 

The book’s title isn’t a metaphor but could be; freedom and captivity, life or death. In between was the gate. Bizot’s gate is physical, the one that once protected the main entrance to the French Embassy until 1975, and guarded by just two gendarmes. The gate, like the wall then surrounding the embassy’s large compound was unimposing.  Barely 2m high of steel frame and wire mesh but with iron spikes mounted on top, it was shut by a simple bolt and a padlock. Perhaps because of these events the embassy today is ringed by a high wall you’d need a cherry-picker to scale, and adorned by sophisticated surveillance features, like a prison.   

 

Half the book covers his time in Khmer Rouge captivity (90 days) and the rest of the book covers the period following the fall of Phnom Penh (17 April 1975) and the departure of the last foreigners holed up at the French Embassy on 8 May, before the country went quiet for over three years until the Vietnamese entered the city on 7 January 1979. His book provides an eye-witness account of events central to the Cambodian humanitarian crisis spanning four decades and still reverberating today.

 

Bizot, an ethnologist, arrived in Cambodia in 1965 to study the iconography of the historical rinceaux, or foliated patterns, that adorn the piers of monuments at the city of Angkor hoping to find clues to the origins of local traditions. His observations of the country were ‘the land was rich and beautiful, enameled with paddy fields, dotted with temples. This was a country of peace and simplicity.’ Of Cambodians; ‘reflections upon the nature of existence were common currency to all its inhabitants. Festivals, divine service, ordinary rituals—nothing was conceived without art, and poetry, and mystery; for always, the spirits of the dead breathed over the turning of the seasons.’ He also strays, at times, into Francophone paternalism with references to Cambodia and its people near borderline to the tenet of the noble savage.

Le Portail on the big screen

 

Some of his lines are almost poetic, his observations built up travelling widely during Cambodia’s golden era, the so-called ‘Sihanouk Time’. But time was running out for Cambodia. Squeezed as it was between pro-US Thailand and the US-backed Republic of South Vietnam it became increasingly embroiled in the American War in Vietnam. After the coup of Lon Nol deposed Cambodia’s enigmatic leader Prince Sihanouk (he had resigned as king) in 1970, the country descended into civil war. The Khmers Rouges (their title, the plural, came from Sihanouk to describe their politics) controlled much of the countryside, the North Vietnamese regular army occupied parts of the land, and the Americans carpet bombed Cambodia killing up to 700,000 of its citizens, mainly civilians.

 

Bizot’s story starts when he was kidnapped with two Cambodians near the Vat O monastery in the Oudong region northwest of Phnom Penh where he’d gone to interview an elderly monk about some aspects of Buddhist ritual. When he arrived with his two Khmer colleagues, Lay and Son, they were ambushed by a group of Khmers Rouges. He recognised their uniforms, ‘imitating’ as he put it ‘the trousers and black shirts of the peasants’. He was then driven (presumably he meant ‘they’) to a deserted village a few kilometres away, interrogated, and then to another destination which he reached in the middle of the night. Then, under guard, he walked all of the next days and for the two days following that, to a jungle prison camp at Anlong Veng near Omleang (or Amleang) in Kampong Speu Province, known to the Khmer Rouge as M-13 (Bureau 13), where the first part of the book unfolds.

 

Rural Cambodia then wasn’t the safest destination, and Bizot had previously been arrested by the Vietnamese near Siem Reap in June 1970 but released. A sign he said of deepening Vietnamese involvement in Cambodia, the breakdown of the state, and of what was to come. In a twist of fate 10 years later the same Vietnamese officer who’d released him, now high ranking, wandered back to the same village to ask what had become of the Frenchman. Bizot’s Cambodian wife Chhoeum Suon, had recently returned home after three years of starvation in a Khmer Rouge labour camp whereby the Vietnamese officer arranged for a 50kg sack of rice to be delivered.

 

The political context of Cambodia then was North Vietnam was already operating deep inside Cambodia. They had seized upon Lon Nol’s coup d’etat as their pretext to cross the frontier from 1970 onwards. The international public was totally unaware of their presence in Cambodia. The French press glossed over it, concentrating instead on the Francophone Prince Sihanouk, who had been forced into exile. Bizot had seen the Vietnamese first hand. After being arrested, and on his way to M-13, he recalled seeing what he described as an impressive military unit on bicycles ‘silent, mobile, and undetectable, older men, 40-50 years of age’, who carried everything with them. Every fighter a model of adaptability, simplicity and efficiency; they attacked powerfully, were practically invulnerable and cost next to nothing. They were level-headed professionals, with no illusions and nothing else on their minds except the next day’s actions, ‘perfect for the task’, as the world’s foremost military industrial superpower was to discover. Bizot was unaware that then, in the first half of the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge fought not one war but four. The first was waged by the US, using heavy bombers which flew in from Guam. The second war was waged by Lon Nol’s forces on the ground. The third war was between the Cambodian and the Vietnamese communists. Finally there was the struggle for influence, between Prince Sihanouk, then in exile in Beijing, and the resistance leaders inside Cambodia.

 

The Cambodian paradox, according to Bizot was ‘in never being able to admit foreign complicity in the defence of the nation.’ The deep-rooted pride of Cambodians would later result in the ‘colossal contradiction – an incomprehensible mystery to the outside world-of a nation perpetrating genocide on itself.’ This would also allow the West to justify, in the name of non-intervention he said, its failure to lift a finger to prevent the massacre. This lens of the outsider is shared by French archaeologist Bernard-Philippe Groslier, who spent his life studying Angkor and Bizot’s contemporary. He wrote of Cambodia with darker observations, that ‘beneath a carefree surface there slumber savage forces and disconcerting cruelties which may blaze up in outbreaks of passionate brutality.’

Khmers Rouges come to town

 

No lover of communism, or the dogma it espoused, Bizot thought they were telling Cambodians lies. He was less flattering about the West and especially the Americans’ uncouth methods, their ‘crass ignorance of the milieu in which they had intervened, their clumsy demagogy, their misplaced clear conscience, and that easy-going, childlike sincerity that bordered on stupidity. They were total strangers in the areas, driven by clichés about Asia worthy of the flimsiest tourist guides, and they behaved accordingly.’ It was their irresponsibility, their colossal tactlessness, their inexcusable naivety, even their cynicism, frequently aroused more fury and outrage in Bizot than did the lies of the Communists.

 

During subsequent conversations with his jailer, Bizot thought Duch’s idealism was misguided but sincere. Duch, a maths teacher— a former prize-winning pupil at the prestigious Lycée Sisowath where many Khmer Rouge leaders had attended, a man brutalised by Sihanouk’s secret police—demonstrated, his captive thought, how authority was portrayed among the Cambodian partisans. A subtle combination: elation, sandwiched between a layer of naivety and another of mischievousness, the whole capable of achieving a complete lack of expression. Once Duch had accepted that his prisoner was not a CIA operative, he convinced the rebel high command to release him, though this was less than straightforward. Duch reported to Sok Thouk (Vorn or Von Veth) his superior and copied in the local commander Ung Choeun (Ta Mok) on the outcome of Bizot’s interrogations. Ta Mok, an affectionate term for grandfather, but known as “Butcher” to his many victims wanted him dead, but Vorn Veth went to Saloth Sar (Pol Pot). Ta Mok ordered Bizot executed a second time a decision Duch remained silent on. In the end Saloth Sar ordered him released. Ta Mok (he eventually became the last leader of the Khmer Rouge) never forgave Vorn Veth and seven years later had him arrested and sent to S-21 prison where he was interrogated by his once junior Duch, who eventually killed the man who once protected him.

 

The story goes Ta Mok wanted Bizot dead so he could keep his Swiss-made watch, which he’d been wearing for the three months Bizot was held in captivity. Before his final release, Bizot was taken to a restaurant for a last meeting where a number of local high ranking Khmer Rouge were present including Ta Mok. There was even a joke about him no longer having a Swiss-made watch (it had been returned to Bizot) at which Ta Mok laughed, Bizot observed revealing his bad teeth. On his way to the restaurant Bizot recalls having seen, as his blindfold wasn’t entirely effective, an entire North Vietnamese motorized division concealed in the backwoods. An amazing feat of logistics Bizot thought, and showed just how far the Vietnamese were determined to go. Bizot then left in a battered white Peugeot with ‘neither lights nor windscreen wipers, an absence of shock absorbers and the springs in the seats were broken’, and driven to the government front lines. Khmer companions, Lay and Son, weren’t so lucky and were executed shortly after Bizot was released from Anlong Veng, something he discovered years later when he met with Duch again in 2003, the latter awaiting trial for crimes against humanity.

The French Embassy 1975 and 'The Gate'

 

Today Bizot’s gate, or half of it, still stands in the embassy’s compound ‘like a little altar erected to the spirits of the dead’. It can be found down a dirt path at the far end of the compound, in one of the only bits of tropical forest in the city. Over time it has rusted. At one time, perhaps by the Khmer Rouge after 1975, or after 1980 when orphan girls took over the premises, it had been given a coat of green cellulose paint, now chipped, but here and there, you can still make out the original grey.

 

After the Khmer Rouges were driven out of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese in January 1979, the French Embassy became a base for the Vietnamese Army. Jon Swain, the English journalist and author of ‘River of Time’, who, like Bizot was one of the last foreigners to leave the embassy in 1975, described the buildings on his return in 1980, as having fallen into disrepair and smelling of human excrement. Later it became an orphanage for girls whose parents died under Khmer Rouge rule. It returned to its original function following resurrection of diplomatic relations in 1992. The embassy was completely rebuilt, the walls an intimidating 4-plus metres high, and the entrance gate and security, new.

 

Bizot’s ‘duties’ as official interpreter with the Khmer Rouge included daily trips for food and to locate foreigners still living in Phnom Penh. He had daily contact with Comrade Nhem, the person responsible for safety of the foreigners. This was not without risk especially to those who had sought sanctuary in the embassy. The Khmer Rouge had just blown up the gate at the Russian Embassy and had threatened to do the same at the French Embassy. Despite his good-natured appearance, Nhem was capable of terrible fits of temper, which could be seen in his ‘tiny cold eyes, which were always at odds with his jovial expression’. He spoke French and he ranged from ‘malice to sadism, cruelty to madness’.

 

Nhem’s headquarters—the Khmer Rouge Military Security Committee—were set up in the South Korean Embassy across the street on Monivong Boulevard. Nhem and his soldiers sat by the roadside in post-art deco armchairs upholstered, rather appropriately given their uniforms and politics, in red and black marbled leatherette. Later when Bizot approached, Nhem set up two standard fans next to the armchairs and had tea poured into magnificent Korean china cups. Each morning, Bizot took the day’s schedule for Nhem’s endorsement, at his request: shopping trips to town for food; visit to the cemetery; search for someone with a French passport who was wounded and hiding in his home; recovery of a trunk from the home of a French couple, and so on. Nhem lent Bizot a minibus and armed guard to collect French stuck in their homes in the city. Some French academics at the Royal University of Phnom Penh wanted to stay in their living quarters and ‘celebrate’ the liberation, their politics sympathetic to the Khmer Rouge, or so they thought. Later they turned up at the embassy in black peasant garb and “Ho Chi Minh’s”, sandals favoured by the guerillas and escorted by Khmer Rouge soldiers. Disgusted at their behaviour and naivety, one of the gendarmes on the front gate delivered one of the French teachers a full blooded slap in the face.

 

Many Khmers sought refuge at the embassy until the Khmer Rouge demanded they all leave of their own accord otherwise armed soldiers would be in to get them. This included Sirik Matak, who along with Lon Nol had ousted Prince Sihanouk from power in 1970, and Princess Manivane, a Laotian by birth, one of Sihanouk’s wives. The princess was driven off by the Khmer Rouge in a truck with her children and Sirik Matak was escorted away in a jeep to their likely place of execution in the Omleang forest, near where Bizot had been imprisoned. Other French speaking Khmers met a similar fate like Prince Sisowath who turned up at the embassy wearing his Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and Madame Long Boret. Her husband served as prime minister (1973-75) of the Khmer Republic, had returned from Bali to negotiate with the Khmer Rouge, had been beaten up and thrown into the garden well.

Chhoeum Suon, Bizot's first wife (Phnom Penh Post)

 

There were 1,000 Khmers in the park at the back of the embassy, crammed beneath the trees, filling the pathways with their jumble of bags, sheets, bicycles and cardboard boxes, forming an immense cluster of men and women, squatting or lying on the ground. Eventually all without foreign passports were rounded up and marched out. One Frenchman married his long-time Khmer girlfriend, the mother of his child, but in a scene of tragedy later disowned her at the Thai border and she and their child were dragged off by Khmer Rouge female soldiers.

 

Aside from the Khmers the embassy became a refuge for hundreds of foreigners fleeing the Khmer Rouge: 700 French nationals, 300 other foreigners from 26 countries including most of the foreign press corps who had moved from their base nearby at Hotel Le Royal, the war correspondents’ home away from home, and who seemingly attached more value to cameras and photos than to their lives.

 

As the days wore on the situation for those inside the embassy compound deteriorated. The most widely-known dramatisation of their predicament is Hollywood’s ‘Killing Fields’ albeit filmed in Thailand, and denounced for over-simplification and historical inaccuracies. Arguments broke out among the refugees, especially at meal times, all hungry and dissatisfied. Within a few days the compound became what Bizot described as ‘a breeding ground for all the basest instincts: theft [one journalist was later to have found to have all the embassy antique silverware in his bag] jealousy, selfishness, aggression.’ There were old quarrels between families renewed. ‘A flock of stubborn sheep who exaggerate every difficulty and complicated every problem’. The French expats were a mixed bunch from all walks of life; many ex-military remnants of France’s colonial past who had chosen to stay on. There was among these a harder core Bizot observed: demanding, not caring a bit about the contempt they inspire and oblivious to any sense of pride or propriety.

Jon Swain - probably in Vietnam

 

Some conversations must have been awkward. Among these was one who’d been a member of the Milice Française (French Militia); paramilitaries tasked by the Vichy regime to hunt down members of the Resistance. Another was a former member of said Resistance. A collection of the expatriate society: retired soldiers, some on the run, academics, business owners, farmers, and a whole milieu of actors. One was Albert Spaccesi (various spellings), the Corsican proprietor of the Café de Paris at number 15, Street 114, as he like to proclaim “the best restaurant in Southeast Asia” who had cooked for Charles de Gaulle and Prince Sihanouk among others. Also, according to Bizot, about 200 French were still scattered about the country in the “outback”; near Battambang and Pailin, mainly coffee planters.

 

Into the midst of which strode Dominique “Alex” Borella, a mercenary and known to his Khmer troops as “sok saw” or “white hair”. Until earlier in the day he had been in charge of the defence of Pochentong Airport. He arrived with his troops and their weapons. Bizot somewhat lionises him ad described him as looking like Robert Redford. While he supposedly refused to be paid his men, it was said, were the only soldiers to get their wages of time but given the rampant corruption of Lon Nol’s armed forces, not much of a benchmark. Borella was responsible for establishing and then commanding the 1ère Brigade Parachutiste Cambodgienne (1st Cambodian Parachute Brigade or 1 BPC). As a soldier in Algeria he was court-martialled for treason, later pardoned and had then fought French causes, first in Indochina, then in Algeria, then back in Cambodia before enlisting in the Phalanges in the Lebanese Civil War, where he was killed later that same year.

'Alex' Borella

 

Bizot described a network of secrets among the journalists staying at the embassy’ that went beyond the rules of propriety’. These competitive interests created the sort of rivalry which could turn nasty but those concerned were restrained by their professional conscious. When lists were drawn up for thsoe to leave in the first convoy, all but two agreed to an embargo on information intended to avoid premature disclosure of alarming news stories to prevent vengeance on those left behind in Phnom Penh. Some protested the list drawn up by the embassy for the first convoy to leave as it composed all the French correspondents including two from the same agency.

 

The Khmer Rouge had demanded all radio communications cease at the embassy, even entering the premises to search for equipment. Later it was revealed one of the US journalists, despite repeated warnings from embassy staff not to, had been sending out messages for himself requesting among other things, a helicopter. Aside from the designated radio room at the embassy there were other radios being used, so even the French didn’t comply with the ban on communications, though Bizot only found out about that afterwards.

 

In early May the Khmer Rouge organised truck convoys to take all those in the embassy to Thailand, a slow drive over battered infrastructure. Bizot left in the second and last convoy. It made its way along what is now National Route Five, past the airport now flattened in recent fighting; the countryside he recalled a sea of flame trees, a fiery crimson. In a village near Oudong they were told of a French woman, Marie, who was part-Khmer. Her father was in France, her mother in Phnom Penh, she wanted to go to Thailand on the convoy. The convoy stopped for the night in Kompong Chhnang. Nhem refused her permission to travel but Bizot kept arguing her case. A number of Khmers has hidden themselves in the trucks, the Khmer Rouge unable to keep a proper headcount from when the convoy left the embassy. In the end Marie travelled all the way with Bizot but suffered the same fate of the Frenchman’s wife, dragged away in sight of the Thai border by the women of the Khmer Rouge.


Postscript:
The French Embassy still stand on the same site, and was completely rebuilt following the re-establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992.
Bizot’s gate, or part of it, stands in the corner of the embassy compound. Requests to view the gate are usually declined.
The EFEO building still stands on the corner of Street 84 today as the Heng Pich ‘Diamond Shop’ guesthouse. The Khmer Rouge looted the building and its valuable collection of books and documents on Cambodian archaeology and history destroyed.
The Khmer Rouge Military Security Committee building, the former South Korean Embassy, still stands and is now a branch of the Mekong Bank.
Hélène Bizot is a jewellery designer. She was born in the Siem Reap village of Srah Srang where her mother is from. She lives in France and has a son with French actor Gérard Depardieu.
Chhoeum Suon, Hélène’s mother and Bizot’s first wife, also lives in France. Their marriage did not survive her ordeal.
Bizot revisited the site where the Anlong Veng camp had been in January 2000. He met Duch again in 2003. They spoke for 90 minutes some of it was filmed.
Duch was tried at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and received a 35-year sentence, later increased to life from on appeal. Bizot was the first witness to testify at the trial.

Bizot and Duch - reunited

 

References:
Steven Boswell, King Norodom’s Head
The Guardian ‘Tales of Everyday Torture’, published 12 January 2003
New York Times, Trying to Understand a Heart of Darkness, 27 March 2003
Christopher Othen; In Search of Dominique Borella, Bad People, Strange Times, Good Books
Francois Bizot

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