by Francois Bizot
Pub. Date: March 2003
The last sixty odd years have produced some the most profoundly sick and murderous moments in all of recorded history. From the obvious, like Hitler's death camps and Stalin's unrestrained genocide of his own people, to less known examples such as inter-tribal slaughter in Rwanda the accounts are all too frequent. However, in relative terms, the fratricide visited upon their fellow denizens of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouges may be as bad, if not worse, of all. Fully 1.7 million people of a population of around 6 million were murdered during their reign of terror in the late 1970's.
Ethnologist Francois Bizot has blessed us with "The Gate", his absolutely vivid retelling of his own unique view of this period in Cambodia's history. It's 1971 and the Khmer Rouges are fighting a guerilla war in Cambodian jungle against what is essentially a puppet government for the Americans.
Married to a Cambodian woman with whom he has a daughter, Bizot's profession takes him around the country looking for and collecting its Buddhist artifacts. One day Bizot and two of his Cambodian colleagues end up in the wrong place, are accused of being spies for the C.I.A. and are taken prisoner by the KR. Unfortunately, the camp they are taken to is run by a man named Douch who personally will become responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of prisoners. In spite of the fact that Douch considers him guilty, Bizot incredibly convinces him otherwise and becomes the only foreigner ever to survive a KR prison.
By 1975 the KR have overrun the capital city of Phnom Penh and all foreigners and all those not supportive of the KR are trying to leave the country as quickly as possible. The slaughter of the people and the rape of the long established culture by the communists are well under way. About one thousand French and other westerners have passed through "the gate" to the relative safety of the French embassy compound while the KR are forcing all others out of the compound - no doubt to certain death somewhere. Never having left Cambodia since his release from prison, Bizot is one of those in the compound waiting for some way to get out of the country. As a testament to his character and the high regard in which he is held, Bizot became the interlocutor between the French and KR officials. His deft touch and strength of character enable him to defuse any number delicate situations.
As a history book "The Gate" is a superb addition to our understanding of this period in human history. It offers a point of view on which no other author can draw upon. This alone justifies its place on many reader's nightstands. Don't, however, let the book's subject matter fool you. Even if you couldn't give a damn about history - and if so, shame on you, this volume offers so much more. A "Lonely Planet" guide to the soul, if you will.
Bizot's imprisonment is a prime example. Separated from family, shackled in a prison camp run by a torturer who thinks him guilty, Bizot behaves in a manner that speaks volumes about who he is. Many of us would sink to the level of our captors, but he has an ease and strength of character borne of a strong sense of self that allows him to hear the ideas of others no matter how intolerable we may find them. Because of this people tend to rise to his level, and as we have already said, he is the only westerner to survive one of the KR prison camps. Examples of Monsieur Bizot's noble character spill forth often from the pages of the book. Never do they attack us, or make us feel less than we are. As a matter of fact, I find it to be just the opposite - a sense of how much we can be.
Finally, "The Gate" even reads like you might expect it to. I'm not sure how to describe it other than to say it was gentle. After sessions with some books your head hurts, but with this book there is an ease about it that just makes you want to keep reading until its too soon end. So if you read only one non-fiction book this year make sure "The Gate" is it.