Vann Nath, 63, one of only seven survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Sleng torture prison, with scenes of the prison that he has painted from memory.
Elyse Lightman, a former resident of Concord, Mass., is a Trustee and Director of Special Projects for the Harpswell Foundation, which provides educational opportunities for disadvantaged young people in Cambodia. She has been traveling to and writing about Cambodia for the past five years. She spoke with Vann Nath in January and again in February.
By Elyse Lightman
PHNOM PENH — Today, three decades after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, marks the beginning of the first substantial hearing in the trial of a senior Khmer Rouge official before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Kaing Guek Eav, or Duch, a former mathematics teacher, is accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes for his role as commander of the Tuol Sleng prison, where 14,000 men, women, and children were tortured and killed.
During the three years, eight months and twenty days that the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge were in power, as many as two million people died from execution, starvation, and illness. The international criminal tribunal — a hybrid of international judges and prosecutors who work alongside their Cambodian counterparts — has been plagued by seemingly endless delays.
There were only seven survivors of the Tuol Sleng torture prison. Vann Nath, a painter by trade and a former monk, was one. He escaped death by painting portraits of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, that were commissioned by Duch.
At the initial hearing on Feb. 17, Vann Nath sat in the front row of the courtroom, a former military theater. Duch sat feet away from him, behind a wall of glass. Vann Nath told me that day: “Today is the day I have been awaiting for 30 years.”
On the evening of Dec. 30, 1977, when Vann Nath was arrested at his home in Battambang, a province northwest of Phnom Penh, he was told only “it was an order from the district.” He left his wife and two children and was forced into a truck filled with other frightened detainees. They drove from early morning until nighttime without water or food, and with little air to breathe. When they finally arrived in Phnom Penh, Vann Nath was taken to a detention center and locked in shackles along with many other men. “We were treated worse than cows or pigs,” he recalled in early January when we spoke at his gallery in Phnom Penh.
Once at Tuol Sleng, he was blindfolded and interrogated. Khmer Rouge soldiers as young as 12 shouted questions at the prisoners: “What’s your name? Where are you from? What district? What section? What region? What did you do during the Sihanouk regime? During the Lon Nol regime?” When it was Vann Nath’s turn, he said that in the past he had been a schoolboy, a painter, and a farmer.
Hunger “like an animal”
The Khmer Rouge strung wire through metal collars around the prisoners’ necks, and dragged them down the road. The soldiers were skilled at what they did, says Vann Nath, and didn’t show any pity. They tried to get him to confess to betraying Angkar, the Khmer Rouge organization, giving him electric shocks until he fell unconscious. He was not given a single drop of water, and only three tablespoons of rice porridge twice a day. During his time in prison, he told me, he “lost all feeling — missing, loving, sensing.” The one feeling he had was hunger, “like an animal.”
A month and six days after Vann Nath’s arrival at Tuol Sleng, three guards unexpectedly called upon him in his room. He was so weak and starved that he felt he was unable to hear or see anything clearly. He was led downstairs to meet Duch. The prison commander showed him a black and white photograph of Pol Pot and told him he wanted him to paint a clear reproduction of the photograph. “I can hardly stand up,” Vann Nath replied.
Duch told him to rest for a few days. The guards fed him water and rice instead of the usual porridge, and laughed at him as he ravenously ate his food. He was finally able to take a bath, and found a shard of mirror. He saw his emaciated body, beard, and long hair. “I lost hope,” he told me. All he could do to survive was to try to paint a portrait of Pol Pot that pleased Duch.
Vann Nath spent the next twenty-five days working on the portrait on a piece of canvas about five-by-ten feet. This first painting was a test, and Duch came to check on his progress multiple times a day. If he liked it, Vann Nath would survive. If not, he would surely be killed. Incredibly, Duch liked Vann Nath’s first painting enough to ask him to paint another portrait of Pol Pot, this time in color, and then another, and another, totaling eight.
On Jan. 7, 1979, one year after Vann Nath entered Tuol Sleng, the Vietnamese-led People’s Republic of Kampuchea regime took over Cambodia, ousting the Khmer Rouge. Vann Nath and the six other survivors were released.
Scenes from memory
At 63, Vann Nath has silver hair, dark grey eyebrows that turn into white wisps towards the edges, and big, melancholy eyes. He has spent much of his life since the Khmer Rouge regime painting scenes of Tuol Sleng from memory. “That time was so severe,” he says, “it’s like everything is still in front of my eyes.”
Vann Nath depicts himself in his paintings, from the time of his capture to torture. One picture shows him with long scraggly hair and ribs protruding from his abdomen like sticks floating on water. Another shows him handcuffed, lying face down on the ground, surrounded by black-clothed soldiers whipping him.
He says he doesn’t have hopes yet for the upcoming trial; he will wait to see the results. “The detainees are held in a room with air conditioning and are given a menu of food to order from,” he remarked. Of Duch he says, “he used to be strong, cruel, and tough, but now he’s just like another old man.”
The trauma of Vann Nath’s past has taken a heavy toll on him. He has traveled to the United States and to Canada, and he has been given many honors, including two from Human Rights Watch. He is an honorary citizen of Lowell, Mass.
Nothing moves him much, though. He says his emotions are flat — he is happy when he has enough food to eat. However, when asked to describe the day he was reunited with his wife five months after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, his face lit up. He told me that neither of them imagined the other could be alive, especially after their two children had died. When they found each other, he said, “the feeling was … beyond words.”