He was no one extraordinary. Indeed, little separates Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who oversaw the torture of thousands during the Khmer Rouge regime, from most anybody, according to Duch’s former captive Francois Bizot.
“I think he is not an uncommon man,” Bizot, 67, said of Duch, the former head of the notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh who was charged in July with crimes against humanity. “We are all capable of becoming uncommon men, if to become an uncommon man one must kill many people.”
Bizot, the French ethnographer who recorded his 1971 detention by Duch in a 2000 memoir entitled “The Gate,” said his captor’s pending trial was the occasion to confront both Duch’s monstrosity and his banality.
“The shock of my detention was to have crossed paths with a killer and met a man,” Bizot said by telephone from his home in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he has lived since being expelled with other foreigners from the French Embassy in 1975.
“It’s a shock from which I have certainly not recovered. I would have preferred to remain in the sort of assurance that killers, bastards, are people very different from you and me,” he said. “I would have preferred that.”
In “The Gate,” Bizot recounted his life in Cambodia, from his arrival in 1965 as a 25-year-old researcher with the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient, or French school of the Far East, to his anguished crossing of the Thai border with a convoy of the last expatriates to be expelled from Cambodia 10 years later.
Captured with two colleagues near Oudong mountain in October of 1971, Bizot was held for 90 days in Kompong Speu province as a suspected spy and interrogated by Duch, with whom he developed an ambiguous bond.
In exchanges marked by daring and bombast, a terrified Bizot pleads for his and his colleagues’ release while simultaneously beguiling his captor with fireside conversation, pressing Duch at one point to admit that Khmer Rouge ideology is little more than a communist veneer imposed on a Buddhist scheme.
While Duch goes to lengths to assure Bizot’s release, even confronting military commander Ta Mok in his defense, Duch kills Lay and Son, Bizot’s colleagues, to whom The Gate is dedicated.
The experience would leave the men, separated by less than a year in age, forever linked in history.
Bizot says now that he has long supported the idea of trying the Khmer Rouge.
“I have been calling for it for years,” he said, adding that one of the potential values of the tribunal lay in exposing the humanity of its defendants.
“The difficulty will be in reestablishing, in accepting the humanity of the killer,” he said. “The entire ambition of the trials is in this: We must try a man, with all the horror that that entails.”
“This is the entire difficulty for we French to understand our crimes in Algeria. It is the entire difficulty in understanding the horrors of the Nazis,” he said.
According to research published by the Documentation Center of Cambodia in 2001, at the “M.13” prison camp in Thpong district’s Omlaing commune where Bizot was held, prisoners were poisoned, scorched and flayed. Others were tied to the condemned and splattered with brains from gunshots to their fellows’ heads.
The total number of people killed there between 1971 and 1975 may have risen into the tens of thousands, DC-Cam reported in its monthly bulletin Searching for the Truth.
Bizot said that as he was not in Cambodia during the period of the tribunal’s jurisdiction, 1975 to 1979, and had not lost members of his immediate family, he saw little reason for him to testify or become a civil party.
“The Khmer Rouge released me,” he said.
Though he and Duch spoke at length during his detention, Duch said little of the orders he was receiving to interrogate and kill or the reasons behind them.
“His work was to talk to them before executing them,” he said. “We spoke little of it.”
DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang said Aug 13 that many of those who remember the Khmer Rouge wonder about their humanity.
“Of course, we’re all human,” he said. “I think this is the reason why we have a tribunal…. When you commit a crime against your neighbor, you have to answer to the court why you did this.”
However Bizot stressed that recognizing a killer’s humanity should not soften the judgment of him.
“Trying to humanize the killer is not to seek to minimize what he did. It is on the contrary to take the full measure of the abomination of what he did,” he said. “I’m not sure we choose what we do,” Bizot said, saying that dire circumstances can determine people’s actions. “There always comes a moment when a man resembles what he did not intend to be. Once again, this excuses nothing. It makes him guilty.”