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Le Portail

I have written this book in a bitterness that knows no limit.
A sense of hopelessness runs through it.

This memoir by French ethnologist François Bizot relates the story of his imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge in 1971 and his flight from Cambodia in 1975.

Bizot arrived in Cambodia in 1965, a young man eager to study the interplay between the grand traditions of textual Buddhism and the little traditions of village worship. He learned the language, Khmer; took a local wife and had a daughter, Hélène; and worked for the École français d'êxtreme orient (EFEO) studying the local culture. In 1971 he was living in a small village near Angkor Wat restoring ceramics and bronzes when he and two Cambodian colleagues, Lay and Son, were seized by the Khmer Rouge and charged with being spies for the CIA.

Bizot was separated from his fellows and forced to march for three days, elbows tied behind his back, till he reached a makeshift camp. Here he was reunited with Lay and Son, and the three were made to lie on their backs in a rude hut alongside a row of other men, all shackled at the ankles. Bizot - much taller than the Cambodians he was imprisoned with - managed to escape this uncomfortable position by showing that his bones were too big to fit into the shackles; he was chained to a platform nearby. Thereafter he was interrogated again and again by Douch, a former schoolteacher who would go on to be the head of the notorious Tuol Sleng, where tens of thousands of innocent Cambodians were tortured and murdered.

The conditions were harsh - daily discomfort, inadequate food, and, for many, brutal interrogation and often murder. But Bizot was allowed certain favours: he was never tortured, and was the only prisoner allowed to bathe in the nearby stream. Over the many hours he and Douch interacted, they formed a certain bond of respect. Douch, a fervent revolutionary, yearned for an unambiguous truth, and came to believe in Bizot's innocence; after three months, he was able to secure his release, the only westerner ever imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge to emerge alive.

The narrative picks up again in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, where Bizot was living at the EFEO offices, and took over the city. The new leaders forced residents to evacuate to the countryside in pursuit of an insane utopian ideal of an egalitarian communist peasantry. Millions were to die on the killing fields of starvation, disease, and murder by indoctrinated Khmer Rouge troops.

Bizot joined the thousands of panicked refugees crowding the French embassy, and was chosen to be interpreter and principal go-between for the French and the local Khmer Rouge leader. This part of the story is just as disturbing as the last: Bizot must run constant forays into the ruined and increasingly deserted city in search of food and supplies, turn away refugees who have no passports, and bargain with the Khmer Rouge leader for every concession and delay. Eventually the inhabitants of the embassy were sent in a convoy of trucks to neighbouring Thailand, and Cambodia descended into a hell from which it has not yet really recovered.

This is a powerful book, and not just because of its subject matter. Bizot is an intellectual, so he does more than simply relate what happened. He ponders the stupidity of the need for truth in politics that drove the Khmer Rouge in their insane quest and the Americans in their ignorant support of the Lon Nol regime. He finds humanity in a notorious torturer and contemplates if he himself could have been driven to such abhorrent behaviour. He rails at the murder and death that he witnessed and that occurred without witness, and that haunts him still.

Bizot settled in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I met him in 1993. He had established an EFEO office in a gorgeous teak house by the river, and had a beautiful young French wife and a child; his half-Cambodian daughter was now a beautiful young woman living in Paris. I worked for him for a year, spending my mornings in air conditioned comfort, compiling a computerized catalogue of the Khmer and French and English and Thai texts on Buddhism that he had collected. I knew that he had lived in Cambodia and escaped, but he never spoke about his experiences of that time, so this book was a revelation to me. A harrowing story that grips even now, thirty years later.

The book was translated from the French by Euan Cameron, and the English edition has a foreword by John Le Carré, wherein he reveals that Bizot was the inspiration for Hansen in his book The Secret Pilgrim.

Bizot now lives in Paris and is the Director of Studies at the Ecole practique des hautes-études and holds the Chair in Southeast Asian Buddhism at the Sorbonne.

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