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Facing the Torturer by François Bizot

Facing the Torturer

by François Bizot

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Francois Bizot was a 30-year old French ethnologist studying Buddhism in Cambodia when he was arrested at a monastery by the KCP (Kampuchea Communist Party), his four-year-old daughter left by the roadside. He was sentenced to death and detained at M-13 Camp, a Khmer Rouge extermination camp. Nearly thirty years later he would write The Gate, describing his three-month imprisonment, the unusual relationship he developed with his interrogator, Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, and his unprecedented release. I read this book several years ago and was recently reminded of it by SassyLassy’s excellent review, which included this quote: “I have written this book in a bitterness that knows no limit.”

Inspired to read Bizot’s follow-up work, Facing the Torturer, I was surprised to find virtually no bitterness expressed. His reflections on this horrific period in Cambodian history and his own unjust imprisonment were so forgiving as to seem almost to emanate from an entirely different experience.

Bizot begins by recounting how as a young man, he killed his much-loved pet fennec (sand fox), by flinging it at full force against a wall. Although the reason for this cruel and impulsive response to his father’s death is unclear, he places it at the center of his assertion that all humans are capable of killing, given the right circumstances, and that “…what is inside me equals the worst of what there is in others.”

Part One of this short work is organized around four periods of time, beginning with Bizot’s 1971 detention at M-13 Camp and the transformation of Duch from his interrogator to his liberator. In 1988, he recognizes Duch in a photograph and becomes aware that he is the infamous torturer known as the “Butcher of Tuol Sleng”, responsible for the deaths of thousands. This awakens memories of his detention, the recording of which he would not begin in earnest until a decade later. Following the death of Pol Pot and the collapse of the Khmer Rouge movement (1998-99), Duch is apprehended and imprisoned. He readily confesses to his crimes and requests to meet with “his friend” Bizot, resulting in written correspondence and two in-person meetings (2003 and 2008). The author closes with discussion of his 2009 testimony at Duch’s trial before the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia. His narrative is supplemented in Part Two by excerpts from actual documents: Duch’s 2008 notes in response to reading The Gate; Bizot’s sworn deposition, consisting of salient parts of his trial testimony; a chronology; and miscellaneous notes.

Bizot’s portrayal of Duch is fascinating, but limited in its explanation of why and how a presumably good and educated man turned to inflicting torture and death under Khmer Rouge allegiance. Bizot characterizes Duch as a man of deep convictions, a former schoolteacher whose desire for justice for his people made him willing to sacrifice himself for the cause. He rationalizes Duch’s actions as being the natural result of his commitment to a cause in which he firmly believes, combined with the expected passivity of a soldier who is following orders and fears his superiors. Although acknowledging that Duch’s actions were unquestionably evil, Bizot argues that the man himself was not, his capacity for empathy apparent in his self-sacrificing efforts to secure the author’s release, as well as in his physical revulsion to inflicting torture. Duch cooperated fully with the Courts, acknowledging some degree of responsibility for the deaths of forty thousand people, and expressing great remorse before withdrawing into silence. He was sentenced in 2010 to 35 years in prison and Bizot’s postscript seems prescient of the fact that to date, Duch remains the only of the Khmer Rouge leaders whose trial has resulted in a judgement.

Duch now feels cheated by everyone, perhaps by me too. Not because I set myself up against him and spoke for the dead – that I know he understands – but because I put him on a par with the worst of the leaders whose orders he carried out, Nuon Chea, the cold and remorseless man, author of Duch’s misfortune and object of his anger; the only one after Pol Pot to whom he thought he would never be compared.

Having found The Gate to be a powerful book, I was both intrigued and somewhat perplexed by [Facing the Torturer]. Although offering a window into a horrific episode in history, this is at its heart a personal book, concerned with how a man reaches peace with his own terrifying experience. While offering many insights, Bizot’s forgiveness towards Duch felt too simple and strangely flat, given the extreme emotional ambiguity that would be expected when owing one’s life to the perpetrator of unimaginably monstrous acts. This may in part be due to the failings of memory and the doubts that come with age, both mentioned by the author, who was 71 years old at the time of writing this second book.

I have lost the certainty that things, as soon as they occur, take on a shape that stays unchanged for eternity. What was not true then is often made true by us after the fact. The present changes the past more than the future, each new ordeal crowds in on the previous ones to crush them.

Although many reviewers have criticized Facing the Torturer for offering little that is new to the understanding of those who commit mass killings, I found it to be a worthwhile read and one that will stay with me. I would, however, suggest that it not be read as a stand-alone book, but rather as a follow-up to Bizot’s more highly recommended first book, The Gate.
9 vote Linda92007 | May 25, 2013 |
Francois Bizot is a French ethnologist who was imprisoned for three months by the Khmer Rouge and ‘interrogated’ by Comrade Duch: Bizot later wrote The Gate, an account of his prison experiences.

Duch, known as The Beast of Tuol Sleng, was tried for war crimes and yet, as Bizot discovers to his surprise in this rumination, his captor was capable of acts of humanity and a bond developed between the two men.

The writing is eloquent and beautiful, an aesthetic but heartbreaking meander through the past – highly recommended for all who enjoy self-indulgent and agonized introspection and profound musings on the nature of good and evil. ( )
1 vote adpaton | Dec 4, 2012 |
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This short book--and for a short book it can be very long-winded--is rooted in Mr. Bizot's prolonged reinterpretations of his experiences [in Khmer Rouge captivity] in the Cambodia of four decades ago. . . . We are all capable of horror, he wants us to know: a discovery about as startling as the realization that, as a species, we walk on two legs.
added by sgump | editWall Street Journal, Andrew Stuttaford (Nov 21, 2012)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307273504, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:29 -0400)

"In 1999, the media reported the arrest of Duch, aka the Butcher of Tuol Sleng--the most notorious torturer and executioner of the Cambodian genocide. Duch's unexpected arrest after years in hiding presented Bizot with his first opportunity to confront the man who'd held him captive for three months in 1973, and whose strange sense of justice had resulted in Bizot's being the only westerner to survive imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge. Only after his release had Bizot learned that his former captor--and, in a way, his only companion in those three months--had gone on to exterminate more than 10,000 Cambodians. Taking part in the trial as a witness, with Duch the sole defendant, would force Bizot to return to the heart of darkness. This is the testimony of what he discovered--about the torturer and about himself--on that harrowing journey."--Publisher's description.… (more)

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