The author of the acclaimed memoir The Gate now gives us a mesmerizing account of his personal relationship with one of the most infamous torturers of the twentieth century, and of his transformative experience observing and participating in that man’s recent trial for war crimes.
In 1971, François Bizot was researching Khmer pottery and Buddhist ritual in rural Cambodia when, along with two Cambodian assistants, he was arrested by Communist guerrillas on suspicion of being an American spy. In captivity, Bizot would establish an unlikely rapport with his interrogator, Comrade Duch, a twenty-nine-year-old former math teacher, now commander of the jungle encampment. After many long conversations, Duch would become convinced of Bizot’s innocence, finally deciding to release his prisoner against the wishes of his superiors, including one Saloth Sar—the future Pol Pot. And so it was on Christmas Day 1971 that Bizot was allowed to depart the camp but obliged to leave his assistants behind.
In 1999, Bizot would hear of the arrest of the “butcher of Tuol Sleng.” This was the nom de guerre that Comrade Duch had earned after releasing Bizot and proceeding to exterminate some ten thousand Cambodians, including Bizot’s assistants, Lay and Son. Duch’s unexpected capture after years in hiding presented François Bizot with his first opportunity to confront the man who’d held him captive for three months and whose strange sense of justice had resulted in Bizot’s being the only Westerner to survive imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge. The arrest also forced Bizot to confront a paradox: How could the man who’d been his savior have become one of the most monstrous perpetrators of the Cambodian genocide?
Taking part in the trial as a witness, with Duch the sole defendant, would return Bizot to the heart of darkness. This is the testimony of what he discovered—about the torturer and about himself—on that harrowing journey.
In Phnom Penh, memories of the acute aggravation of my senses under the Khmer Rouge’s iron rule—that ability to feel from within what went beyond simple understanding—came back to me, and they were in opposition to the intellectual code of my contemporaries. I could no longer reason as they did, nor could I reason as myself. I seemed to lack the freedom to make people hear what my whole being wanted to say, about my own motivations, man’s hidden instincts, the other face of the torturer—about all the truths that went against the so-called wisdom of public morality. Whatever part Duch’s leniency had played in my release, the psychological mechanisms put in motion, in his conscience as in mine, resonated in ways I did not dare ponder, or even return to, because they put me in a precarious position vis-à-vis my own education. From this journey of paradoxes I was returning with an enigmatic impression of zones full of shadows. Why hadn’t I taken an immense dislike to Duch? Had I been his victim, or not? I had confronted him about the truest, most sincere, most authentic things in us, without for a single instant sharing the political commitment for which he was ready to die, and thus to kill. But at the time, as soon as I endeavoured to picture his motives, it seemed possible to understand what he was doing, what he had to do. In those instants, the cruelty of his occupation was nothing more to me than the hopeless reflection of the vilest forms of human behaviours, all issuing from the same original depths.
Some people are like magnifying glasses that allow us to access the great taboo background to which our pupils adjust with such difficulty. What we see then is what is usually wrapped inside everyone’s secrets. At M-13, I managed to look into these things fully, and the sudden vision of a Duch quite like other mortals was a call to arms—in a fundamental battle against myself which I now know will never come to an end.
Conditions permitting, a person in danger of death will sympathise with those who threaten him. I had already been threatened, like everyone else, at school or with some of my friends. But there, in that extermination camp, the dubious position of the guard and the condemned man—which “victimology” popularised later under the term Stockholm syndrome—sent me down whirling inside. The appellation stems from the survival instinct that urges every victim to become attached to the fate of his torturer, sometimes even to defend him, to the point of refusing later on to testify against him. With Duch, I think I went even further: separated from everything, and surprised in my meagre nudity, fear forced me not simply to be “sympathetic” to him—that would have been pointless—but to improvise multiple scenarios of approach, in order to experience as fully and as sincerely as possible all of his reactions, to capture his attention and make him sensitive to my fate—to ‘seduce’ him intuitively, in my own way, so as to remain credible, and so that a real feeling of identification could develop between us. My life was at stake, and without taking the risk of cheating – not caring about untangling the conscious from what rose from the subconscious—I placed all my hopes in him, angrily, but with all my heart. For instance, I discreetly manoeuvered him so that he would face the consequences of his actions, finding roundabout paths to make him sense, by exaggerating them, all the intrinsic risks that would ensue from my death: a canonical literature of texts barely uncovered would be lost; ancestral rituals would never be studied; not to mention a child who would be crying somewhere, calling out for her father . . . I now believe that no man can resist this; his mistake was to listen to me, my strength to make myself heard.
Just as Duch had planned not to torture me and to gently extract fuller confessions from me, so I had imagined from a tactical point of view that it was by remaining sincere—to the point of shouting, of open rebellion—that my innocence would be clearest to him. I knew that one mistrusts a person most when they disguise their voice. And at this game, keeping in mind the submissive relationship that Duch entertained with his bosses, I wonder to what extent he himself fell into an equivalent dependence with me, balancing the constraints of his conduct by striving to protect me and refusing to kill me; I see a similar pattern in our behaviour— his in his relation to his hierarchy, and to Ta Mok in particular, mine in my relation to him.
We were both probably partly aware of the situation, but only in an unspoken way, since no one there seemed ever to have enough time to think: in this imprisoned space that we all lived in, and where everyone had his assigned place, no one thought about anything but surviving. But, paradoxically, there came a moment when the obsession with personal safety took a back seat; the need to ‘keep going’ was so central that there was no room left for thought, nor even fear. At the same time, by triggering that very mechanism , fear acted on everyone, from the killers to the killed. My endeavours to keep Duch on my side—which I exercised over him as much as over the guards who reported everything to him—seemed to be executed in their own, freewheeling style, without operation of the will, from a subconscious hinterland to which I had no access. Thus we lived in invisibility, he and I, in the midst of the others, in a symbiosis that mated us without making us closer to each other, but on which more or less all our behaviour was modelled, my own depending on what I could see of his, and vice versa. I remained alert, involved to an extreme degree, wholly focused on his person, constantly genuinely striving for assimilation.
I imagined him, at the top of his watchtower, caught going about his two lives: the first in broad daylight, the second in the dead of night. And while these two poles of ordinary life combine in our dreams, I wondered which brought him more pain: his efforts at survival in the diurnal existence; or the moral judgement that was taking shape within him during his nocturnal solitude. When he was in my sight, at the thickest of his darkness, I took advantage of his frightening candle to go and bury my face in the labyrinth of my own obscurities. I found deep inside myself so much confusion and contradiction that I wondered whether I would have resisted better than him the powers of falsity and their corruption, whether I would have been better equipped not to break the laws of morality. I remembered many a minor choice I’d made in my life; was I capable of questioning those choices, once the small circle of people I knew had recognised them as authentic and true?
Never again would I see my fellow man as before. Duch set a storm of questions whirling around my head, the kind we only ever encounter in fairy tales or mythology and that, later in life, we only put to children.
I would have liked to be able to return to the warm shadows of my childhood nights, when I was afraid of the devil and yet lived in some comfort. Since then I’ve learned that there is always a real monster hidden in the wardrobe.
The horror no longer appeared to me the effect of some disease, of a constitutional defect that prevented the “free development of the soul,” the deficiency of dark natures barely touched by the rays of light. I did not know that the orchestration of evil might not exclude sincerity or generosity. I imagined that savagery was a thing innate, the tribute paid to nature by dangerous beings, regardless of causes and conditions. I believed that killing and beating were stains on a character, and stemmed from nature, a need for domination, a deviant psycho-physiological disposition. I didn’t know that the human condition, which makes each of us a beloved father, a beloved son, a cherished being, might never protect us from the monsters that lurk within.
Duch had caused the scales to fall so painfully from my eyes that it became impossible for me to measure on my own the consequences of what I had just experienced without beginning to shiver. His mask, which he lifted at times before me as he got to know me better, allowed me to see the invisible: continuity and disruptions made me see him now as a killer, now in his human interiority, like those ‘transformation masks’ that animists put on, which in Cambodia portray an animal or a human being whose gaping mouth opens on to another face. These masks reveal the inside of a man, as a paradigm of subjectivity, and they also symbolise the tangled world where everyone must go to discover the other. They all generate that repulsion we feel when animals display human characteristics.
On 26 November, 2009, the final day of a trial that lasted almost two years, throughout which the prisoner did whatever he could in the service of the truth—cooperating, abandoning his right to silence, paving the way for the discovery of evidence, testifying against his former leaders, crying out his guilt and responsibility, acknowledging his cowardliness, asking forgiveness—Duch little by little stopped looking at the assistant prosecutors attentively, retreated into his shell, refused to answer questions that in any case had already been asked a hundred times, and in a general way, decided to fall silent once and for all, to stop listening, to turn his back on the rest of the world.
The French assistant lawyer for the defence, François Roux:
“Mr. Prosecutor, you have missed your appointment with history! [ . . . ] You have made a stock indictment whose implication is none other than: ‘This man is a monster, lock him up for forty years, and everything will be better in society!’ Those words are hackneyed. We have to go further than that. We have to try to understand the mechanisms that make a man—a good man in every respect, as we say—one day become a torturer. That is what I would have liked to hear you discuss! Because, in the Nuremberg trial, they said the same thing: ‘These Nazi people are monsters. We will condemn them to death, and that will serve as an example.’ But after Nuremberg, Cambodia happened, Rwanda happened’ . . . What is this exemplarity, with its deterrent nature, you are looking for? What purpose does it serve in your conventional speeches, so long as you don’t confront the real problem?”
The prosecution had in fact played its role to perfection: in the name of society, the prosecutors managed to spread a feeling of permanent frustration, acting every day in such a way that the acknowledged facts seemed truncated, that the defendant’s confessions seemed to hide from us the brutal, distressing aspect of reality. Public opinion rushed to this conviction of the magistrates, the way one rushes to look for help: “Duch wasn’t saying everything”; his remorse was not expressed directly or sincerely. End of discussion. From the beginning, everything had been done to make us understand that he was the guilty one, that individual, precisely; and that this had nothing to do with “humanity.” Duch was the one the law was punishing. He deserved the maximum sentence that could be handed down on him by the law of the people, without the crux of the problem being dealt with, or ever mentioned.
Duch knows the price, he knows his inexpiable crime, and does not try to flee: “The best I can do is to kneel down and beg forgiveness. The victims and the survivors can point their fingers at me. I am not offended by that. It is their right and I accept it respectfully. Even if the people stone me to death, I won’t say anything, I won’t say I’m disappointed or that I want to kill myself. I am responsible for my actions and it’s everyone’s free choice whether or not to forgive me. I am here to accept my responsibility. I am full of remorse for what I’ve done, and I speak from the bottom of my heart. I am not on any account using that as an excuse. My words are sincere.”
Nothing could soothe Duch any longer, except for one thing: his collaboration with the law had been intended to show, as sincerely as possible, how important it was that he be heard and believed. He found that he had the courage to endure any pain – in line with his regrets—in his own name, as a repentant for his own crimes. Not for the ones we attribute in our crude caricatures, which we hang in effigy, screaming shrilly, so that we never look under the mask of the monster to make out the familiar face of a human being.
That was asking the impossible.
So the torturer fell silent, in keeping with what was expected of him. Then finally, he asked for the termination of the proceedings, as if lowering his arms, in a turnabout that stemmed from more than the political pressure exercised by his Cambodian lawyer, whose goal was to attune his defence with that of his former leaders, whose trial was beginning. This change was a reaction to the basic deafness of the Office of Assistant Prosecutors, itself echoing a far more primal autism: our inability to hear at once whatever is odious and whatever is pitiful in human nature.
Beyond Tuol Sleng’s walls, there is nothing that refers us to anything but ourselves. Will we ever have the courage to acquire this vision and to admit it to ourselves? This consciousness, from inside and out, of devouring each other, of self-destruction, ever since committing the original betrayal in order to become masters of the living world?
The evils we endure go back to “a deeper, wider abyss [than our past], they seem prior to our birth.”
Human pride has been left safe by this trial: the monster has not been identified. Duch no longer scares us. But how much is there to fear from the torturer’s silence – this silence about ourselves that echoes my mother’s silence from long ago—‘as if everything were already done in our innermost selves . . .
Excerpted from Facing the Torturer by Francois Bizot. Copyright © 2012 by Francois Bizot. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Charlotte Mandell has translated fiction, poetry and philosophy from the French, including works by Proust, Flaubert, Genet, Maupassant, Blanchot and other distinguished authors. Her translation of The Kindly Ones is the sole English language version.