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Archived Reviews

Before The Killing Fields

THE GATE, by Françoise Bizot;  Alfred A. Knopf, 277 pp. $24. [please check, my copy is a galley, so pagination and price may have changed]

History has a disquieting habit of repeating itself. According to the Yale Cambodian Genocide Program: “The Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979, in which approximately 1.7 million people lost their lives (21% of the country's population), was one of the worst human tragedies of the last century.” And, it should be added, least known. Tribunals are only now, in 2003, beginning, for these nearly inconceivable war crimes.

The narrative begins in 1971, as a pro-US government has taken Cambodia by coup, and the US has moved into Cambodia proper, invading the previous year to chase Vietnamese forces that have been using it as a refuge and staging area. The young French scholar Françoise Bizot has been studying Cambodian Buddhism at the famed temple complex at Angkor Wat. Attempting to visit with an aged Buddhist monk, with two Cambodian colleagues, Lay and Son, Bizot’s group was taken prisoner by “Khmer Rouge waiting in ambush ... they drove us at high speed to a deserted village a few kilometers away.”

This would be the beginning of three months’ detention at a camp “known to the Khmer Rouge as M. 13.” Bizot was chained by his ankle to a tree, and questioned extensively, even made to fill in a notebook on his Buddhist observations. The reason for this was that his jailer, Douch, was convinced that Bizot was NOT a CIA operative -- which contradicted Khmer Rouge consensus.

Luckily for Bizot, either Douch had taken a personal interest in him, or was still idealistic enough to be interested in the “truth” of the charges. Bizot was the only Westerner taken captive in the period 1971-1975 ever released from such a camp.

Bizot’s straightforward recounting of his life in the prison camp is written with an astonishing honesty, and his self-observation is nearly miraculous in the circumstances. He was lucky, though: spared the beatings, the torture, and, finally, the walks into the thick vegetation from which no prisoner returned.

When he revisits the camp in 2000, Bizot is told, chillingly, “that I am the only prisoner who can make such a pilgrimage, for no one else escaped from this camp alive.”

Bizot’s recall of his imprisonment is frighteningly immediate, as he reminds us that the greatest terror of all is the uncertainty of never knowing what is coming next, the terror of the mind.

Released, he is given a packet of papers to deliver to the French Embassy. When he translates them for the French Government, there is already a blueprint for an unprecedented purge of Cambodian society. But “these warnings, duly relayed to Paris, had simply been ignored, and France stubbornly maintained its support for the Khmer Rouge.”

The Americans had inadvertently set the stage for what was to come. Bizot is ambivalent: “I witnessed the Americans’ impregnable ignorance about the realities of Cambodia ... yet today I do not know what I reproach them for more, their intervention or their withdrawal.”

In its second half, after the US withdrawal, the narrative abruptly moves to the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975, as Bizot finds himself the translator between the Khmer Rouge overlord and those within the French Embassy compound, who number, at some points, over a thousand. As the only person in the compound permitted to travel in the city, he witnesses the surreal nightmare of a falling and fallen capital city, not entirely unlike the current state of affairs in Baghdad, albeit more severe.

At last, the French realize, in humiliation, that they cannot save even those to whom they have promised asylum. And, even at the border crossing of Thailand, more lives slip away, in anticipation of the genocide of the next four years.

Bizot is an honest and acute observer, and there is very little politics or philosophizing in his account, which lend his conclusions all the greater weight.

Bizot’s observation of the past may well prove prescient for our future: “when the Americans moved in, they did nothing but arouse greed and feed corruption,” as their money, spread liberally around, only created greater problems than it solved. Perhaps if the lessons of Cambodia are learned, the present will not be a re-run of grave errors made in Southeast Asia.