A Cambodian Prison Portrait by Vann Nath is a grueling memoir of a year (7 January 1978 – 7 January 1979) he spent at the infamous Toul Sleng S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. About 14,000 prisoners were arrested and brought to the prison for interrogation and were savagely executed by the Khmer Rouge regime which ruled Cambodia during 1975-79. Vann Nath is one among the seven prisoners who survived the brutality. In his words:
“Only a handful of people who had known the taste and flavor of this prison had survived. It was my great luck that I have been born with the temperament and love for drawing and painting…” [p:108].
Vann Nath, an artist by profession, in his vivid personal memoir recounts the excruciating experiences of his own and that which he saw, heard and lived with in the prison. His stirring account takes the reader inside Toul Sleng, a former high school converted into a secret prison, surrounded by electric fence and barbed wire that bears witness to the brutality of Khmer Rouge regime. After a month since his arrest, he writes:
“After living that kind of life for several days my body began to deteriorate. My ribs were poking out and my body was like an old man of 70. My hair was overgrown like bamboo roots, and had become a nest for lice. I had scabies all over my body. My mind and spirit had flown away. I only knew one thing clearly: Hunger.” [p:46]
Nature, coconut trees seen through the prison window, was Vann Nath’s fleeting escape. The prisoners were not even allowed to move their body without the permission of the prison guards.
Vann Nath, a man of grace and empathy, notwithstanding the young and cold-blooded prison guards with arms took a risk to save a fellow prisoner’s life. His sense of empathy kept him waiting for a chance to speak to terrified, emaciated prisoners with no hope. His gestures, as he recounts below, reflect on his ability to understand and relate to the fellow prison inmates in those perilous situations:
“…I secretly gave Meng cigarettes when the room guards were out…I had to take the risk because I felt so sorry for him.” [p:72]
On 7 January, 1979, Vann Nath with a few fellow workmen escaped from the prison. In about a few months of reuniting with his wife, Vann Nath returned to Toul Sleng and began contributed as a painter towards building the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh which was opened to the public in January 1980. He writes:
“Nowadays, when I visit Toul Sleng, I am overcome by this painful past. Everything that happened to me comes flooding back: the terror and shock, the ghost-like emaciated people, the screams of pain echoing through the prison, the brutality of the prison guards. The pale faces of the prisoners seem to look at me from every corner, crying, “Help! Please help me…” [see Introduction]
The photographs, paintings and means of torture on display at the Genocide Museum not only revealed (and continue to) what happened inside Toul Sleng but also answered the Khmer people in search of:
“…their husbands, wives, or children who have been killed…” [p:102].
Vann Nath on the importance of “keeping the memory alive” writes in the book:
“Nowadays from time to time there is talk of closing the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. There are those who argue that this will help heal the wounds and bring our fractured nation back together. However, I feel very strongly that the museum should stay open. More than 14,000 prisoners were executed at S-21. If Tuol Sleng Museum is abandoned or converted to another purpose, it means that those men, women, and children who died there were simply eliminated; that their deaths were meaningless. I want to keep the memory alive so foreign visitors and the new generation of Cambodians can understand what happened during that time. Our children must learn never to treat human beings like animals, or lower than animals.”
At the age of 65, Vann Nath died in September 2011. Below is the link to some of his paintings collected by the Art History Archive. The archive compiles information about various art movements with a purpose to educate people: