Francois Bizot: Confronting the Worst: Writing and Catastrophe
FRANÇOIS BIZOT: In 1971, I was caught by a revolutionary communist in Cambodia. I was chained and condemned to death and before that, interrogated by a young man who asked me about what I used to do with my father. I wanted to ask him, “What about your father? What about your work? Where were you born? How old are you? And so on.” For three months we spoke together and he chose to not beat me.
I think, as I was suspected to be a spy working for the CIA, he thought it was clever to speak with me openly to see how I would answer his questions. And maybe he thought if he tortured me, I would have a special secret strength in myself, as I would have been trained for that. Anyway, we spoke together every day, and in a few weeks we started to know each other quite well. There were about fifty condemned to be killed in the camp; one by one, I saw them going with the guard. Of course, I was very much afraid. I knew that this young chief, the Cambodian revolutionary with whom I spoke every day, was beating them. And he gave the authorization to kill the condemned.
When we spoke together, I realized, without clearly knowing it, that I was in a very rare situation. He explained to me why he went to the forest to fight the American soldiers. He was a true thinker; he was very involved in justice in Cambodia. He wanted his country to be free enough to have a good life. In a certain way, he was very much like the friends I lived with in Paris who were communist and against the war and against poverty, against injustice.
Going near him every day and seeing sometimes his fragility and sometimes his anger, I realized he was a monster. At that time, he was a small monster. But four years afterwards, I think we can see he was a big one because we recognize fourteen thousand victims. From 1975 to 1979, he was the chief of this huge prison in Cambodia, and organized all the deaths and the torture and the interrogations. To be so near a monster was much more frightening than I had expected. That is the start of the book that I was to write thirty-five years afterwards, because what I saw was not the monster I was waiting for. In fact, he looked like other men, an ordinary person. Sometimes I realized that he was looking a little bit like me. That was much more frightening than what I thought I would see.
After our conversations, he decided I was nuts. He did not want to kill me and so his chief, Pol Pot, ordered, “Let the Frenchman go.” That’s why I am here now. In 1999, which was a long time afterward, I realized that this person that I’d met thirty years before had given me a tremendous opportunity. We have learned that we should try to identify ourselves with victims, to suffer in our flesh what they suffered. Knowing my interrogator was not married, knowing he was a good scholar, a math teacher, knowing him intimately, I started to identify with him.
That was the reason for the story: I think we should maybe have the courage to identify ourselves with and humanize the torturer. Maybe we should look at ourselves, instead of saying “Never again,” which does not work. We could maybe try to ask a new question, as well as a very old one: “How is it possible?” We may find the answers in ourselves.