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A Passage To Old Sorrows

Cover of The Gate The Gate by Francois Bizot
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2003

There are many memoirs of Cambodia, written by both Khmer and foreigners. Among these, Francois Bizot's The Gate is unique. Bizot's experiences and his expertise combine to make a book that is unlike any other.

Bizot, a French scholar, arrived in Cambodia in 1965 to study Buddhism. He traveled extensively in the countryside, delving into the history and customs of Cambodia's dominant religion. When the Vietnam War spilled into Cambodia, Bizot was employed at the Angkor Conservation Office, restoring ceramics and bronzes.

Wary of the the Communists, Bizot at first hoped that the Americans might counter their influence. "But their irresponsibility, the inexcusable naivete, even their cynicism, frequently aroused more fury and outrage in me than did the lies of the Communists. Throughout those years of war, as I frantically scoured the hinterland for the old manuscripts that the heads of monasteries had secreted in lacquered chests, I witnessed the Americans' imperviousness to the realities of Cambodia." They were, in short, just another corrupting influence. "Yet today," Bizot writes, "I do not know what I reproach them for more, their intervention or their withdrawal."

Bizot understood the true nature of the Khmer Rouge long before other outsiders. Decades later, his frustration remains: "What oppresses me, more still than the unclosed eyes of the dead who fill the sandy paddy fields, is the way the West applauded the Khmer Rouge, hailing their victory over their brothers in 1975. The ovation was so frenzied as to drown out the protracted wailing of the millions being massacred."

Bizot's words may seem unnecessarily harsh. Yet given his personal experiences, one can hardly blame him.

In June of 1970, Bizot was captured by North Vietnamese troops outside of Siem Reap. He was given a safe conduct pass by a Vietnamese officer and released unharmed. He kept the safe-conduct pass, partly out of pragmatism, and partly as a talisman. A short time later, Bizot was given the task of escorting a convoy of heavy vehicles to Phnom Penh. Upon his arrival, another Frenchman invited Bizot to a dinner party. The guest of honor was Jean Lacouture, the foreign editor of Le Monde. During the meal, one of the guests asked about the roads outside the capital. Bizot mentioned that the North Vietnamese had attacked a bridge near Battambang:

"'You mean the Khmer Rouge,' said Jean Lacouture. 'I don't think there are many North Vietnamese in Cambodia! Even if this theory may suit Lon Nol...'" Reluctant to be lectured about Cambodia by the Paris-based Lacouture, Bizot replied that he did in fact mean Vietnamese. Lacouture dismissed Bizot's objection. "'Don't be fooled,' he stressed with the tone of an expert. 'It's very hard to tell them apart you know. And the ambiguity is widely exploited.'" Bizot then produced his safe-conduct pass, written in Vietnamese, and passed it around the table. "Lacouture, still showing his skepticism, looked at it without saying anything; and he apparently drew no conclusion from it, as demonstrated by the articles that he continued to write, several months afterward, without changing his views."

Bizot did not believe that a Marxist ideology was what the Cambodian people really wanted. Nonetheless, the Americans were ill-suited to the task of combating Communism in Southeast Asia. What frustrated Bizot about the Americans was their "uncouth methods, their crass ignorance of the milieu in which they had intervened, their clumsy demagogy, their misplaced clear conscience, and that easygoing, childlike sincerity that bordered on foolishness." "Childlike sincerity" hardly seems like an accurate description of American dealings with Cambodia, but otherwise Bizot's comments are appropriate.

In October 1971, traveling near Oudong, Bizot and his two Cambodian colleagues were ambushed by Khmer Rouge and taken prisoner. The experience would prove to be far different than his earlier capture by the Vietnamese. Arms tied behind their backs, they were marched to a camp deep in the jungle. Bizot was shackled by the ankles and interrogated again and again. His captors insisted that he was spy.

The ordeal of his imprisonment forms the first half of the book. The brutal nature of the Khmer Rouge was obvious from the moment of Bizot's capture. The magnitude of their terror, however, was not fully apparent until Bizot had a conversation with another prisoner, a man named Thep. Thep described an incident in his own village shortly after the arrival of the Khmer Rouge. When three families refused to allow their sons to be conscripted, the Khmer Rouge killed the heads of the families. The rest of the villagers, outraged, in turn killed the Khmer Rouge. When the Vietnamese communists later surrounded the village, the Khmer Rouge returned and killed the remaining members of all three families... including five infants, who were murdered by a fourteen-year-old Khmer Rouge.

There are many heartbreaking moments in "The Gate." One of the most painful centers around the arrival of a nine-year-old girl in the camp. She had accompanied her father, who had been brought in as a prisoner. She waited patiently, hoping for his release, refusing to eat. "I was indignant that a child had been brought to this place of adults and death," Bizot writes. He makes it his personal quest to keep the girl alive, and as we read, page after page, a mantra echoes in our heads: Please, please, don't let this little girl die. Her fate is both surprising, and distressing.

Bizot's survival depended upon his ability to convince his captors that he was not a spy. The leader of the camp -- a man named Douch -- seemed to believe him. "Douch was one of those pure, fervent idealists who yearned above all for truth." He believed fiercely in the righteousness of the revolution, and despite his obvious cruelty, Bizot saw him as his only hope for freedom. Given the role that Douch later assumed during the Khmer Rouge regime, the irony of Bizot's salvation is almost beyond description.

In an argument with Douch, Bizot argued that Communist doctrine was in many ways similar to Buddhist doctrine: renouncing possessions, confessing faults, enduring hardships. "Are you not defending a new religion?" asks Bizot. Douch responded with disbelief, dismissing Bizot's comments: "Buddhism is the opium of the people," an anathema to the true goals of the revolution. What the revolutionaries wanted was true independence. Bizot, however, seemed to see the revolution more clearly than the revolutionary: there was, Bizot insisted, nothing independent about the movement. "You are the ones who are totally dependent! You fell into a trap by taking up the cause of the North Vietnamese. They are using your men to advance on the battlefront of a war that is not yours. You are armed by the Soviets, your speeches are made in Peking, your songs and your music... no longer have anything Khmer about them!"

Bizot's account of his imprisonment is compelling, and that alone would make The Gate worth reading. But his tale is not nearly over: He remained in Cambodia after his release, and when the Khmer Rouge poured into Phnom Penh in April 1975, Bizot was there. Like most other foreigners, he wound up at the French Embassy as the Khmer Rouge began to evacuate the city. Because of his fluency in Khmer, he soon became the primary point of contact between the embassy officials and the Khmer Rouge.

His words are fascinating, horrifying, and heartrending. He describes moments of devastating sorrow; one senses that he foresaw the terrible fate that awaited the Cambodians. Bizot himself was at the Embassy gate when Madame Long Boret, the wife of the Khmer Republic's Premier, arrived outside, her newborn child in her arms. She asked to be let in, and was refused. She begged Bizot to take her child; he could not. And later, many of those who had previously taken refuge in the embassy were forced out. "We opened the gate, and those we could no longer keep because they were putting our frail ship in danger threw themselves into the sea."

It would have been easy for Bizot to write a book that damned the Khmer Rouge. But his book is more pained than angry, and his target is not just the Khmer Rouge, but the polluted ideas and dangerous ideologies that created them. On the way out of Cambodia, observing several French communists, ejected with the rest of the foreigners by the revolutionaries they romanticized, Bizot ponders their naievete: "What did they understand of their motivations and their language, their history and their revolution?... However much hatred or sympathy I may have felt for some of these dreamers -- guilty yet motivated as they were by a sincere sense of brotherhood -- today, now that the point of no return has been reached, and they are silent, I feel merely a bitter compassion, and an infinite sadness."

Bitter compassion, infinite sadness, and searing intelligence make The Gate an exceptional book.

 

The Gate is published by Alfred A. Knopf.
It is available from Amazon.com.

 

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