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In Latest Work, French Author Bizot Asks ‘Frightening’ Questions of Humanity

Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge's infamous detention and torture center in Phnom Penh, one of several Khmer Rouge strongholds under the authority of Kang Kek Iev. (AP Photo/Andy Eames)
Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge's infamous detention and torture center in Phnom Penh, one of several Khmer Rouge strongholds under the authority of Kang Kek Iev. (AP Photo/Andy Eames)

"Facing the Torturer," the most recent book by the only Westerner to survive Khmer Rouge imprisonment, explores the philosophical notion of evil.

Click here for the text of VOA Khmer's exclusive interview with Francois Bizot.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - On May 8, 2009, Francois Bizot approached the stand at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal, in a courtroom just outside Phnom Penh. He was the first witness called forth in the trial of Kang Kek Iev, better known as Duch, who was on trial for supervising Tuol Sleng prison, where thousands of people were tortured and sent to their deaths.
On one hand, I met the man who was responsible for the entire state’s killing, full of so many horrors committed that I can’t imagine taking his place today. On the other hand, I met a young man in whom, I confess, I was afraid of recognizing myself.

Bizot was to testify before the judge to begin the thirteen-month inquisition. The French writer was the only Westerner to survive Khmer Rouge imprisonment, at a jungle prison called M-13, run by Duch before he was promoted to Tuol Sleng. There, Bizot met frequently with his jailer, before he was eventually freed. In court testimony, Bizot referred to his time at the prison.

“Today it’s Duch who is accused and he is the one bound to the bar, so to speak,” Bizot said, alluding to the rods to which he was chained during his imprisonment. “On this occasion may I evoke the memory of the M-13 prisoners… who were later executed in another camp because they had worked with me. It is in their name that I wish to testify today.”

With this episode, Bizot begins the first chapter of “Facing the Torturer,” a book that uses his relationship with Duch as a jumping-off point for a broader philosophical journey. Neither justifying nor condemning the atrocities of Duch and other Khmer Rouge leaders, the book dissects the notion of “evil,” a concept that Bizot ultimately finds meaningless.

“I could not accept this sort of rationale that gives some person, some group of people on our planet, the definition that they are born and have in them an ability to kill, and the other part of their humanity would be safe from that,” Bizot told VOA Khmer in an interview. “I don’t believe that. Unfortunately, I think any torturer is put in a situation where he has to force himself to do things.”

Published in May, “Facing the Torturer” comes nine years after Bizot’s seminal work, “The Gate,” which chronicles his imprisonment at M-13 and describes his experiences behind the walls of the French Embassy after the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh.

Every instance of mass atrocity seems to hold some exception, however slight, to the rules of cruelty. There are the stories of the Nazi officer who saved Polish Jews from extermination by enlisting them to work on his vehicles, of the Rwandan hotel manager who housed more than a thousand members of the persecuted ethnic minority in his luxury resort during the 1994 genocide, stories that clash with the standard narrative of history, which often relies on accounts of brutality without exception. Bizot’s experience joins the record of these unlikely graces and is invaluable to the broader story of the Khmer Rouge, many Cambodian scholars argue.

“I think that stories from anyone who survived the torture of the Khmer Rouge are significantly important, not only for today’s judicial process, but also for the future generations of Cambodia,” Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, told VOA Khmer. “These are stories that absolutely need to be told.”

Bizot was 25 when he left the Sorbonne in Paris for Cambodia in the mid-1960s, setting out to study Buddhism while working in the Angkor Wat conservation park. The six years that followed his arrival in the country were the “happiest of his life,” he said, marked by his marriage to a young Cambodian woman and the birth of their daughter, Helene. Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge gained political traction, covertly planning an insurgency to secure a communist authority in Cambodia.

The party instigated civil war in October 1970. With it came the construction of prisons to house “political opponents,” an ambiguity that would encompass Bizot.

He recounted the trip from his village to another, just north of Phnom Penh, when a sudden ambush of Khmer Rouge soldiers seized him. His jailers accused him of collusion with the CIA, as they shackled his arms and legs and carried him and his two fellow travelers to M-13 prison. There, Duch would lead a one-man inquisition, where an admission of guilt would warrant death.

“The interrogations went on every day between [Duch] and me,” Bizot said. “He was 27, and I was 30. In the heat of his questions, and because of the permanent anger I had at being taken for something I was accused of that was a horrible confusion, I asked him questions in return. This lasted for weeks and weeks, and a certain habit was created between us. There was regular contact between both of us.”

Duch believed Bizot’s innocence, he said, but it was this regular contact that saved his life. “I looked at him, and he looked at me. Looking at him, I saw his humanity in a way. He looked at me and saw something else, not just a victim he could send to be killed. And this made all the difference.”

Duch personally delivered Bizot the notification of his order for release. It was Christmas Day, 1971. Duch asked Bizot to spend the evening with him by a wood fire. On that night, Bizot said, he “looked behind the mask–behind the monster–and realized that [Duch] had human qualities that were disturbing and frightening.”

This, Bizot says, is why the word “evil” is meaningless to him. It is also why humanity appears incapable of self-improvement. In the 32 years since the Khmer Rouge fell, there have been a handful of instances across the globe that have further claimed the lives of innocent millions, some deemed genocides by the appropriate governing bodies, some not.

“Our contemporaries say ‘never again, never again,’” Bizot said. “But… things were the same in the time of my father as they will be for my children. We always say that it’s horrible, but it never comes to us that we shouldn’t have wars.”

Bizot’s work is not without its critics. Some find the dialogue within to be dubious, perhaps diluted by the veil of the author’s three decades of silence. Some are unconvinced of the validity of Bizot’s broader emotive descriptions of the Khmer Rouge, describing the rarified nature of his experiences as nearsighted. Still, few contest that his experiences, however blurred by time or narrowed by isolation, provide a unique
examination of a character otherwise shrouded by mystery.

Irish photographer and journalist Nic Dunlop joins Bizot on the brief list of Westerners who can claim to have had personal interactions with Duch. With the hopes of “understanding and contextualizing” the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime – a point of fixation stemming from reading a National Geographic magazine at the age of eleven – Dunlop traveled to Cambodia in the 1990s, a photograph of Duch in pocket. In 1999, on a day off from an assignment for the Canadian government in the western part of the country, he found himself in a remote area where the Khmer Rouge revolution first
saw light, decades before.

A man approached Dunlop and greeted him in English.

“I’d been carrying around his photograph for awhile,” Dunlp told VOA Khmer. “I didn’t need to refer to it. It was Duch.”

He would have two more encounters with the former regime leader. In the last, Duch would nonchalantly confess to his crucial hand in the killings of millions. His contrition appeared genuine, Dunlop said.

Like Bizot, Dunlop dismisses the trait of “evil” as a loaded term but an empty one, failing to account for the nuances of human behavior and its interplay with circumstance. He paraphrased from the coda of his 2006 book, “The Lost Executioner: Journey to the Heart of the Killing Fields,” to frame his argument.

“If the only way to survive as a Khmer Rouge cadre was to totally throw yourself in with what you were doing–i.e. to take pleasure in the pain that you were conflicting–does that make you more guilty?” he asked. “That is one of the unanswerable questions that this question of ‘evil’ throws up. It’s why we resort to ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as a narrative. The idea of a perpetrator and a victim being one in the same is not something we’re
readily able to accept.”

No one is immune from the unspeakable, he said. “Every time I lose my temper, I think about that. I think about what that temper could unleash.”

In his work, Bizot offers a corollary to this notion. In the end, Bizot says, those who kill do so operating under some pretense of what is right. He stressed that in consequence, we must recognize the humanity within them, however concealed by even the most unspeakable cruelty.

He points to his relationship with Duch.

“On one hand, I met the man who was responsible for the entire state’s killing, full of so many horrors committed that I can’t imagine taking his place today,” he said. “On the other hand, I met a young man in whom, I confess, I was afraid of recognizing myself.”