Wearing a blue baseball cap, and carrying a bag full of groceries, legendary S-21
survivor Vann Nath walked into his Phnom Penh restaurant and eased down wearily into
an aluminum folding chair.
It was a late January afternoon and Nath was moving slowly. He was still pained by
the operation he'd undergone to stem the tuberculosis doctors located in his spine.
He said when he wakes each day at 6 am, his entire body hurts. If he aches too much
he stays in bed all day. He hasn't painted since he became seriously ill with kidney
disease more than a year and a half ago.
But Nath never complains. He believes all older people have ailments. For now, his
family runs the restaurant and he stays upstairs in the terrace where he once painted
some of the most important visual documents of modern Cambodian history. It's also
where he penned his 1998 memoir A Cambodia Prison Portrait: One year in Khmer Rouge's
S-21 prison, the only written account by a survivor of the Toul Sleng prison where
Nath was jailed.
Nath, 62, is one of seven survivors of Toul Sleng where 14,000 men, women and children
were interrogated and executed during the Khmer Rouge regime. Only three of the survivors
are alive today.
The spinal surgery required restoring a disc in his back from another bone in his
body cost more than $10,000. It takes at least another $1,000 each month for twice-weekly
dialysis in Phnom Penh and frequent trips to Bangkok for additional medical treatment.
He can't afford the medical care and relies entirely on donations - mostly from foreigners
- to stay alive. He says the government has never helped him in any way.
Still, Nath isn't bitter. Modesty prevents him from asking for handouts, and his
longtime friend Sara Colm says he wouldn't accept them even if they were offered.
"He's very uncomfortable about any kind of public campaign. He doesn't want
the government to help him," said Colm. "He knows better than anyone that
he's not the only victim of the Khmer Rouge and that he's not any more important
than anyone else."
A devout Buddhist, Nath is neither angry nor bent on revenge. When told that former
Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea recently denied any knowledge S-21, the prison and torture
center where Nath was one of only seven survivors, he shrugs. When told that his
former jailer Duch receives regular medical treatments from French doctors, he smiles.
"It is better that the government helps him get treatment. If he were allowed
to die it would be a big loss for the victims of S-21," Nath said. "It
would be a big loss for justice."
Nath has waited 27 years for the Khmer Rouge Trials, but he's not impatient. He believes
the government wants the trial, although he can't explain the delay.
"What I want to see in my life is for the leaders to face the court and for
the trial to determine who is responsible for killing our people. I don't want to
see any leaders killed because I don't want to see people killed again," he
said. "I don't want to see them in prison. I don't want that. I just want them
to acknowledge that they committed these crimes and explain. That is the most important
lesson for our young generation to learn."
That's Nath: a man whose calmness and dignity scream for justice, even without asking
for it. This is Nath: a national treasure for his art, an unwilling symbol of injustice-and
a truly humble man so important to so many.
An honor, but not an answer
On February 6, Nath received the prestigious Hellman/Hammett award, an honor bestowed
by Human Rights Watch for writers who display courage in the face of political persecution.
According to Colm the award, which carries a financial award between $500 and $10,000,
is not the answer to Nath's physical or financial problems.
"Basically, more is needed. A one time award is helpful for drawing international
attention to a very courageous and important painter and writer who is trying his
best to inform the world about the injustices of the Khmer Rouge and keep its memory
alive," said Colm. "But by no means will it solve his long term problems.
He's facing a lifetime of high medical costs. His kidneys aren't functioning and
he has other health problems as well. He really needs a new kidney and that's both
complicated and expensive."
With an estimated price of $80,000, the option of a new kidney has Nath's supporters
wondering where the money might come from. According to Colm, much of Nath's most
recent work has been sold to pay hospital bills.
"He needs, deserves and wants a healthy life where he can return to painting
and writing while knowing that his call for justice has been heard. He wants to enjoy
his elder years in peace with his family and his children," said Colm, who is
a Human Rights Watch senior researcher.
Artist Sopheap Pich, director of SalaArts, believes Nath is the most important modern
"Aesthetically speaking you have to respect his art for its honesty. Honesty
comes out in everything that he does. In contemporary art honesty is hard to find
these days. That's his most important lesson."
But Nath-who perhaps could be called the Francisco Goya of Cambodia-remains realistic
throughout it all.
"I don't want complete justice," he said. "I just want some."