Editor’s note: Francois Bizot, a former French student of Cambodian Buddhism who witnessed the regime’s takeover of Phnom Penh and later wrote about it in his seminal work, “The Gate,” has published a new book. As a young man, Bizot spent much time in a Khmer Rouge jungle prison camp run by Kaing Kek Iev, better known as Comrade Duch, who eventually let him go, saving his life. Duch went on to run the infamous torture center at Tuol Sleng and ultimately received a life sentence for atrocity crimes from the UN-backed tribunal. Bizot returned to Cambodia to testify at Duch’s trial and to sit with his former captor in prison. In an interview with VOA Khmer, Bizot describes what he learned and what of that has gone into his latest work.
Firstly, what drove you to Cambodia, to leave France and travel to Southeast Asia?
I was twenty-five when I first went to Cambodia. It was because I was going to study Buddhism in Southeast Asia. I was at the Sorbonne in Paris, and I wanted experience with Buddhism, so the French School of the Forest sent me over there with the purpose of working in the conservation park of Angkor Wat, and then to start my studies with Buddhism. Over there, I lived in a village and married a young Cambodian girl, Helene, and, well, until the conflict happened, it was the happiest time of my life. On the tenth of October, 1971–a story that goes back forty years ago–I left the village for the north of Phnom Penh for the monastery there, for my studies of Buddhism. I was with two friends–coworkers. We were in the monastery over there, in the pagoda, and we realized that an ambush had been set up for us. I was immediately apprehended and led along a country path, and then there were guards with rifles. The next morning, I arrived at a village, and my legs were locked in a device made of wood. The Khmer soldier took me out, blindfolded my eyes, and I was led away to be accused. I will never know if it was a mock execution or an order that was not carried out, but I should have been executed and I wasn’t. So whatever the case, we arrived at a detention camp–an extermination camp. A young man arrived, whose name I learned was Duch, and I understood he was the leader of the camp.
You were captured as an innocent student and believed to be a CIA operative. First of all, were you aware of the rising political tension in the country? Secondly, did you have any idea what was in store for you when they took you into captivity? Did you anticipate what would happen–were you aware that the Khmer Rouge was actively seeking political dissidents, even though you weren’t technically a political dissident? Did it surprise you?
Of course I knew the country was in a war, but that was in the north between the Americans and the Vietnamese, and I was in Phnom Penh. Where I went with my two friends was–well, it just happened. It was just bad chance for me. The young man Duch told me that there were charges against me, and I had to write declarations of innocence. The interrogations went on every day between the leader and me. 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. My interrogation was conducted, but I was never beaten. Maybe Duch thought that the best way to get proof from a Frenchman would be not to hit him, thank God, but to engage in conversation. That is the big thing that arrived to me. I looked at him, and he looked at me. Looking at him, I saw his humanity in a way. He looks at me and sees something else–not just a victim he could send to be killed. And this made all the difference.
I should say that my meeting with Duch marked my fate, as well as everything I am today, for a simple reason. 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 confessed that I was afraid of recognizing myself. He committed his life and heart to the revolution. Its weakness was the support of the idea that crime was not only legitimate but praiseworthy, as it is in all wars. The Khmer Rouge were not the first men to do that. Most of the time, we kill people because we think we have a good reason to do it. Consequently, far from awakening in me any sort of affection for him, this realization of his character and the ambiguity of that form, was quite disconcerting, and the origin of my tragedy today. I do not know what to do with this experience. When I was in the camp on that Christmas night at the end of my detention, he told me that he received an order that I could be relieved, and I spent the night with him. So I asked him: who is it that does the hitting? He did not hesitate to answer me. He told me that he sometimes hit the prisoners when they lied. And I was terrified. I think that this episode, which for me was a fundamental event, was the origin of a long, long thought process that took place within me. For the first time, I looked behind the mask–behind the monster–and I realized that he had human qualities that were disturbing and frightening.
You don’t seem to think that those that held you prisoner were fundamentally evil people. Do you think there’s such a thing as a fundamentally evil person?
No. I don’t think so. 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. I don’t believe that. Unfortunately, I think any torturer is put in a situation where he has to force himself to do things. And that’s terrible, because there is no pardon. What I mean when I say the ‘humanity’ of the torturer, that is to take the measure of his abomination. We need to rehabilitate the humanity within the torturer. If we make him into a special monster, we are unable to recognize ourselves as a human being. The horror of his action seems to escape us. If we consider that he is a man with the same capacities as ourselves, then we are frightened beyond that sort of segregation that would have to be made between those that are “capable” of killing and us, who “aren’t capable of it.” We have a more terrifying understanding of the executioner when we take account of his human side. But that is not to forgive. No forgiveness. Trying to understand is not wanting to forgive. It seems to me that there is no forgiveness possible in the name of those who have died. The horror of what was done in Cambodia and elsewhere is the bottom of horror. The cries of the victims should be heard. The worst words that one can use against Duch can never be harsh enough. It is not a question of wanting to forgive what was done, and that is sometimes difficult to understand. I don’t want to minimize his crime, but realize that it could be good for us to see that we are not safe. We could do, in a certain way, a lot of the things that people have done already. And that’s frightening.
Clearly your experience in Cambodia left you with some real philosophical questions about human nature and human cruelty and the morality of forgiveness. Do you seek to answer these questions when you write?
I think writing is for me the best way to feel happiness. But why I write about the torturers is because I saw something that maybe I should not look for. I saw behind the mask of the torturers, and it was terrible what I saw. Behind the mask, it was not a monster. It was a human being. And that is the question. So many times, in so many situations, our contemporaries say “never again, never again.” But every time, it’s the same. We cannot help, because we always act like it’s something new for us. But it’s not. In certain places, 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. I’m not speaking of isolated events–I’m speaking of mass killings, when you’re not afraid to be a killer.
You say you’re not talking about individual killings. But let me cite something that’s been in the news lately–the July 20 movie theater shooting in Colorado. What are your thoughts on that?
Yes. And I know what you’re trying to ask. I can’t link those kinds of killings with those with torturers, organizing–mass killings. Words, in this sort of war, are words of glorifying, protecting your family, protecting your country, bringing the peace to people, and so on. With big killings, it is always for a reason that is especially shown to us as a “good” reason. And most of the time we believe it.
It’s been thirty-five, forty years since the Khmer Rouge genocide ended, and in that period, we’ve seen numerous other instances of mass killing, all operated under some sense of “doing right.” But it seems like after a certain point, we should have learned our lesson. Do you think there will ever be a time in mankind’s time on this Earth when there’s an understanding, looking at past events, that mass killing is never justified, even if done with “good intentions”? Will there ever be a time when there is a peace, and thus a lack of need to commit these sort of atrocities?
I’m very pessimistic. I’m sorry–the French people still glorify the killings of the revolution in 1789. That is part of the glory of our history. Look at the War in Iraq, the war between North and South Vietnam–there are so many examples. It seems that when you win a war or revolution, the dead are the bad guys and that the killings were good killings.
I’d like to talk to you about what it was like being in the tribunal courtroom when Duch was on the stand. This is a man who has committed an obvious atrocity, but he’s also a man who in many regards saved your life, with whom you developed a relationship during your imprisonment. What was your primary emotion, seeing him on the stand? Was it pity, was it sympathy–how did you feel, seeing him up there being tried for the killings of millions of people?
I had been called to go. If I hadn’t been called, I wouldn’t have gone. It was very frightening to testify. There is no friendship, there is no affection, there is no such thing between me and he, except my life. I am thankful for my fate that I wasn’t killed, because of my daughter and so on, and after that I have had two other children. The big question with him is not the question of being saved. The question is that I saw in him a guy who was both a monster and a human, in the same way that I would have characterized my friends in Paris who were communists, who were ready to die for their ideas and engage themselves in the war. Duch was a young guy who was not much more or less than anyone who wants the best for humanity. He was not the first one to want it. Before that, I thought people who killed were absolutely different than me, different than people I wrote about–not a human being. That was the big surprise and horror. Normal human beings have the ability and capacity to put their emotions on the side and listen to their moral understanding. That is our strength. Animals will not go against their emotional feelings. We can.
Your latest book discusses that trait. It came out a few months ago. Are you happy with how it’s been received worldwide?
Yes. In fact, I was a little bit afraid. It was very difficult to confront victims and express my regret and feel very deeply their suffering on one hand, and on the other hand, to deeply understand that the guy who was on trial… listening to him was something very painful. What was painful was that I suddenly understood that his words could not be listened to. He said “look at me. Listen to me. Look what I have done. There is a coffin inside me, full of dead bodies. It’s something beyond any understanding for you and me. When I was young, I was not prepared to do that. I would have never though that I would one day be like I am now, in front of you.” And he was sincere. And this sincerity could not be accepted by us. We need a torturer who is a monster, a killer who is not us, a killer who does not care. We need a man with cold blood and without any regrets. When a killer expresses his regrets, it’s not something anyone wants to hear. They want to see in him this sort of nonhuman being, and that’s the only reason, I’d say, for justice to be done. Justice spares us, justice protects us, and helps us put the good in one side and the bad on the other. We “good people,” we think “oh, we’re safe. I am not that monster.” But if you try to be something else, which is to turn the face of the monster and show that the monster in question is a man with all the qualities of humanity–who loves his children, who cries, who hesitates, who was completely confused at the start of the killings and his career as a torturer—it makes everybody feel bad.