It was 1998 when former Phnom Penh Post Editor Sara Colm came to me with an assignment. This was not a regular journalistic assignment to report on a story. However, she gave me a new job to translate a compelling memoir of Mr Vann Nath, a surviving prisoner at Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Sleng execution and torture center.
My evening became occupied. With two Khmer and English dictionaries on my sides, I started pecking loudly at a typewriter, breaking the silence of many nights to come.
At times, my translation work seemed to have had a short supply since Mr Vann Nath could produce only a page in a day or two. The painter-turned writer said he felt too overwhelmed by the painful
memory about his torture and other prisoners’ tragedy to write as much as he could.
Under the pressure of extreme anguish, Mr Vann Nath was eventually able to put together his 130-page memoir entitled “A Prison Portrait: One Year In Khmer Rouge’s S-21” after about one year.
As if he used his brush to paint pictures, Mr Vann Nath managed to use words to give a vivid description of each horrifying scene and event he had encountered during his one-year ordeal at Tuol Sleng.
As the translator, I would also take frequent breaks to overcome the pain of reading about Mr Vann Nath’s painful story.
However, both Cambodians and the world need to know what happened at Tuol Sleng and elsewhere during the Khmer Rouge’s nearly four years’ reign of terror responsible for nearly two million Cambodian deaths.
In addition to his written memoir, Mr Vann Nath has provided the Cambodian people with an insight into the nightmare and tragedy that was inflicted on 14,000 prisoners who had perished after they entered Tuol Sleng through his paintings and occasional oral story telling to students and other visitors.
I believe Mr Vann Nath still had hundreds of other stories he had yet to tell us beyond what he could tell in his written memoir.
We regret that in less than a year, we have lost two very important friends, including Mr Vann Nath, who was trying to seek justice, and former Khmer Rouge tribunal spokesman Mr Reach Sambath, who was trying to help provide justice for the Khmer Rouge’s victims and survivors.
Mr Vann Nath’s death was indeed the loss of a living almanac about Tuol Sleng prison.
Moeun Chhean Nariddh,
Director, Cambodia Institute for Media Studies
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