Cambodian Journalism Review

Vann Nath, Artist and Cambodia Torture Survivor, Dies at 65
September 20, 2011, 11:41 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Vann Nath, Artist and Cambodia Torture Survivor, Dies at 65

By SETH MYDANS, The International Herald Tribune, Published: September 5, 2011


Vann Nath, an artist who was one of only a handful of survivors of the Khmer Rouge torture center Tuol Sleng, and who lived to testify two years ago at the trial of his jailer, died Monday in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He was 65.


The cause was cardiac arrest, his family said, adding that he had been in a coma for three days. He had suffered from kidney disease and other ailments for years.

Shackled and tortured along with other prisoners when he was arrested at the end of 1977, Mr. Vann Nath was spared by his jailers to paint portraits of the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot. His more recent paintings of scenes of torture now hang on the walls of Tuol Sleng, now a museum.

Just 14 prisoners are known to have survived Tuol Sleng, where at least 14,000 people were sent to their deaths, according to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a repository of Khmer Rouge records. Altogether 1.7 million people died during the Khmer Rouge rule, from 1975 to 1979.

Mr. Vann Nath’s 1998 memoir, “A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge’s S-21 Prison,” is the most vivid written account by a survivor.

Mr. Vann Nath’s death came as long-delayed trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders were under way. He was the first survivor to testify, in 2009, against the Tuol Sleng commandant, Kaing Guek Eav, or Duch, who is now appealing a sentence that the judges reduced to 19 years from 35.

“I could not sleep last night,” he said at the courthouse as the trial began. “I was waiting for the sunrise so that I could see Duch in the dock.”

On the witness stand he said that prisoners were so starved that they ate insects that fell from the ceiling, and that he even dreamed of eating human flesh. “Even though I’ve tried my best to forget, it still haunts me,” he told the court.

Testimony in a second trial of four senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge is expected to start soon.

Mr. Vann Nath was born into a poor farming family in Battambang Province in 1946 and became a painter of signs and billboards. He said he was arrested for reasons he did not know while working in a rice field and was spared only when his jailers discovered that he could paint.

“Every brush stroke,” he said in an interview, “you were just hoping that they would like it and would let you live.”

From his workshop he said he could hear the screams of prisoners under torture and of children seized from their parents to be killed.

“When the screams got really bad, we just turned and looked at each other as if we had made an appointment,” he said. “We were talking to each other with our eyes. We wanted to say, ‘Is this what will happen to us, too?’ ”

He was liberated in January 1979 when a Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge from power and his jailers fled.

In the years since then, supported partly by his paintings and by ownership of a restaurant, he had become a living representative of the victims of Tuol Sleng, often interviewed by journalists, calmly retelling his story.

Information on survivors was not available.


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