The air was heavy with dust, exhaust fumes and the stench of drying fish. We were stuck in a Phnom Penh traffic jam close to a bridge over the Mekong river. Suddenly the driver saw a gap and tore down the inside lane, inadvertently splattering dust over pavement hawkers and artisans. 'It's like the Wild West here,' he grinned.
The driver was François Ponchaud, a French priest who has spent most of his working life in Cambodia and the refugee camps on its border with Thailand. As author of Cambodia: Year Zero, he was the person who first alerted the world to the genocide perpetrated by the Pol Pot regime.
He took me to a chapel on the outskirts of the city. Sisters of Charity, dressed in the sari-like habit which Mother Teresa made famous, were seated on the stone floor. Lay people filed in at the back, poor and thin, with troubled, timid eyes.
Father Ponchaud emerged from behind the altar, wearing priest's vestments over his dusty clothes, and celebrated mass in fluent Khmer. He punctuated his homily with questions to the congregation. One young man stood up several times and proffered his knowledge of the Gospels with evident pride.
We met the same man afterwards in the AIDS clinic which the Sisters run. They said he would die soon. Father Ponchaud chatted with him and with the other patients, found several points of contact and fostered moments of joy.
François Ponchaud was born in 1939 in Sallanches, France, under the shadow of Mont Blanc. 'I imbibed the Catholic faith with my mother's milk,' he told me. He seems to have imbibed more of it than his 11 sisters and brothers; by the age of 19 he was a seminarian.
At 20, national service summoned him to fight as a paratrooper in Algeria for two years. 'It was a very difficult time,' he recalled. 'It became more and more evident to me that a different dimension must be introduced to rebuild the world. To make war in the way we did in Algeria, of which I'm deeply ashamed, with a materialist and a colonialist rationale, where human action was unillumined by faith -- well, that can only lead us to catastrophe.'
He felt a calling to work in Asia, but says it was 'chance' that led him to one of its most war-torn lands. The Missions Étrangères de Paris (foreign missions of Paris) simply told him to go to Cambodia, and that was that.
'The Missions Étrangères de Paris dates back to 1660,' Father Ponchaud told me. 'In our first three years abroad we are charged with the specific work of studying the language and the customs of the country, in order to work as intelligently as possible.'
He recalled an early experience of trying out his recently acquired knowledge of Khmer on the Superior of a Buddhist monastery in a densely-forested area on the border with Vietnam. 'I told him that Catholics worship God, who created heaven and earth and is the Father of humankind. The monk listened to me with a faint smile on his lips and then started explaining to an elder of his monastery that Catholics believed stories that were made up in olden times to teach the ignorant!.... I began to realize how difficult it is to speak about God to Cambodians. We were all speaking Khmer but there was no communication; our whole conception of the world was different. I concluded that on the intellectual level there was no bridge.'
On 17 April 1975, Father Ponchaud was using his knowledge of the Khmer language in very different circumstances, under the whine of rocket shells, for the International Red Cross, as tens of thousands of frightened people streamed into the centre of Phnom Penh. When the city finally fell to the Khmer Rouge, Ponchaud remembers a strange discrepancy between the people's jubilation that the war was over and the sullen attitude of the victorious soldiers.
Later that day the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh began. A phone call asked whether the Red Cross could take all the inmates from the biggest civilian hospital in town. Then, moments later, he witnessed an appalling, 'hallucinatory spectacle'. Thousands of sick and wounded people were abandoning the city, some carried by friends, others lying on beds pushed by their families with intravenous drips still attached.
'I shall never forget one cripple who had neither hands nor feet, writhing along the ground like a severed worm,' Ponchaud wrote later, 'or the man with his foot dangling at the end of his leg, attached only by skin. "Can I spend the night here with you?" the man asked.' Father Ponchaud was obliged to refuse. He recalls that it made him feel as if his own last shred of human dignity had been lost.
Father Ponchaud crossed the border into Thailand on 7 May with the final convoy of foreigners to leave Cambodia. Back in France, the Missions Étrangères de Paris advised all its priests and staff who had escaped from Cambodia to begin working in another country. Father Ponchaud refused. 'I needed to reflect for a while and digest what had happened,' he recalled. So he stayed in Paris and worked for the Society's information office.
He said it was 'chance' which led him to write Cambodia: Year Zero in 1976, though when I probed further he admitted that he sensed a clear calling to maintain solidarity with the Cambodian people in their difficulties. 'God leads us,' he said, 'but often in curved lines'.
In the summer of 1975 Ponchaud had begun receiving first-hand accounts from escapees of the Cambodian holocaust and was listening to Khmer Rouge radio bulletins relayed to him by friends in Thailand. The following February, angered by a fatuous article on Cambodia in Le Monde, he sent the editor-in-chief some of the information he had collated. Several days later the paper carried a three-page article by Ponchaud. Early in 1977, he launched his book. The New York Review of Books described it as 'by far the best informed report to appear on Cambodia, where the bloodiest revolution in history is now taking place'.
For Father Ponchaud, as for every Cambodian who survived the killing fields, there was great personal loss. In the early 1970s he had been responsible for 40 young Cambodian Catholics. Only two survived.
In 1979 Pol Pot's regime was forced out of Phnom Penh by Vietnamese forces and the number of refugees living in makeshift camps on the Thai-Cambodian border swelled to 300,000. Ponchaud went to live among them.
The situation posed not only massive humanitarian problems, but also, for Ponchaud, theological ones. 'Some of the refugees wanted to become Christian in order to get US passports,' Ponchaud told me. Sometimes we would just say, "Go away, become good Buddhists and only then can you consider becoming Christian!"'
Ponchaud felt led to preach Christ's message--'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you'--though he knew that his hearers had seen loved ones murdered in front of their own eyes. He recalls his amazement when a man emerged from a congregation, said he wanted to forgive the Khmer Rouge and then sought out some Khmer Rouge cadres in order to do so.
I asked whether Christians and Buddhists could work together to rebuild Cambodia. 'Without Buddhism Cambodia is lost,' Ponchaud answered. 'Personally I consider Buddha to be a prophet like Moses, with extraordinary intuition and an important place in God's plan. Buddha educated Asia on the moral plane and discovered a way of resolving humanity's problems. Jesus does bring us another way, but it is quite futile to be critical of one another. We are each in our own way searching for the Absolute.'
What had Ponchaud himself learnt from Buddhism? 'Meditation has become more important in my life,' he replied. 'Before I would read a passage from the Bible and say a number of prayers daily. Now I cannot live without meditating for half an hour, or an hour, every day. It places me again before God and purifies me. It has become the heart of my life and the source of my motivation.'
He explained how the Buddhist practice of 'loving kindness meditation' helps him on those occasions when he feels hatred for someone. 'I take about half an hour, and I think about the people whom I like most, and I send them good wishes. Then I think about people I like less, and send them good wishes; then I send good wishes to people I don't like, and finally I send good wishes to people I detest! Gradually one's attitude changes. It is a simple method, but it has helped to transform my heart.'
For him, serving Christ has meant taking seriously Christ's call to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. 'I feel happier like that,' he says. 'I am no longer in need of anything. Jesus Christ puts human existence into its real context and affirms that love and life are good.'
Father Ponchaud took me to a slum in Tuol Kork, the suburb in Phnom Penh where he lived for many years. We walked along precarious footbridges, over murky puddles, between densely-spaced wooden houses on stilts. Children shrieked, giggled and ran helter-skelter. Adults hailed him respectfully as 'Grandfather' and came over to chat.
Ponchaud had lived in one of these houses, to understand better the daily lot of the poor. When I asked how it felt to come back, a light gleamed in his moistening eyes. 'It makes me happy,' he answered. 'These people live in very difficult circumstances but they always manage to smile. In Western societies people always manage to complain. Sometimes I feel it is these people who are closer to salvation, not me, not us in the West.'
Later I saw Ponchaud in his office. Bible commentaries in Khmer and texts in Greek and Hebrew were scattered across his desk. Dominating his bookshelf was a Khmer version of the Bible, translated by an ecumenical team which Ponchaud had headed.
'I have to leave for a lunch appointment with a Cambodian couple who are going to get married,' he said suddenly. He fished out a helmet, got onto a weathered moped, smiled warmly and disappeared into the swirl of the Phnom Penh traffic.
When I think of Father François Ponchaud now, it strikes me that I have met someone wholly given to following that 'curved line' of God's leading.