The horrors endured by Vann Nath during the dark years of the Khmer Rouge's tyrannical rule stayed with him until the very end. Indeed, they most likely hastened his demise.
The 66-year-old artist, one of little more than a dozen known survivors of the regime's infamous Tuol Sleng torture camp, died this week after suffering a heart attack and slipping into a coma. He said his health never recovered from the year he spent behind the barbed wire of the jail in Phnom Penh, where he was repeatedly interrogated and tortured and where he witnessed countless other prisoners dispatched to their deaths.
"I saw a lot of things during my year in the prison," he said in an interview two years ago at his gallery in Cambodia's capital. "It was [worst] during the day. They were interrogating new prisoners who'd come. There was torture, screaming, lots of activity... It is so hard for me to tell you. I suffered so much from that prison; that is why I have been so sick."
The frail, white-haired artist was famous not only for surviving his incarceration at the jail, which was run by Kaing Guek Eav, or Comrade Duch, but for recording in the most striking detail what he and others went through. Upon his release, he began work on a series of paintings that revealed prisoners being water-boarded, beaten, hung-up and having their fingernails pulled out.
A number of his dark and sinister paintings are splattered with blood, others show the glare of prison lights. In 1980, a year after Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and drove the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh, several of his paintings were hung from the walls of Tuol Sleng, which was turned into a genocide museum. They remain there today, seen by thousands of visitors who pass through the quiet rooms of what was once a simple school.
But if Vann Nath's ability to record his experiences using paint and oils was remarkable, so too was the story of how painting saved his life. Forced to work on a cooperative farm, like hundreds of thousands of other Cambodians, he was accused of being an enemy of the regime and dispatched to Tuol Sleng in 1978. He would likely have suffered the same fate as more than 14,000 other prisoners sent to the jail who were subsequently summarily executed at so-called killing fields on the edge of the city, had Comrade Duch not come to learn of his ability as an artist. As was the case with another Tuol Sleng survivor, Bou Meng, Vann Nath was put to work producing paintings of the Khmer Rouge's senior leader, Pol Pot. He said he saw Duch, a one-time maths teacher who oversaw the jail also known as S-21, almost every day.
Last year, giving evidence before the UN tribunal which subsequently jailed Duch for 19 years for war crimes and crimes against humanity, Vann Nath tearfully revealed how he and other prisoners were forced to eat insects to survive. "We were so hungry, we would eat insects that dropped from the ceiling. We would quickly grab and eat them so we could avoid being seen by the guards," he said. "My suffering cannot be erased – the memories keep haunting me."
The death of Vann Nath comes as proceedings continue against four other senior members of the Maoist-inspired regime – deputy leader Nuon Chea, former foreign minister Ieng Sary, former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith and former head of state Khieu Samphan. Though prosecutors have said there is sufficient evidence to prosecute other former senior figures, opposition to such proceedings from the Cambodian government means it is unlikely more trials will take place.
Vann Nath's death means there remain just six known survivors from Tuol Sleng who are still alive. "The passing of Vann Nath, before others responsible for the creation of Tuol Sleng S-21 prison are tried, is a tragedy that highlights the high cost that the simple passage of time can inflict on the pursuit of justice," said Youk Chhang, of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia. "Sadly, this tragedy repeats itself silently throughout Cambodia, as each day victims of the Khmer Rouge pass away without having been provided any measure of justice. What is even more tragic is the fact that many of these deaths could be prevented if ordinary Cambodians had access to modern healthcare."
Theary Seng, whose parents were among up to 1.7 million Cambodians who died from starvation, torture or execution during the four years the Khmer Rouge controlled the country, was among those at the artist's funeral yesterday. She said: "Vann Nath was not only a national and international treasure, a well-respected icon of dignity and humility, but a friend of all survivors and victims."
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