"IF Pol Pot says that, he is not a human being." Vann Nath smiles when
told that Pol Pot said he didn't know about Tuol Sleng, that it was all an invention
of the Vietnamese. He doesn't seem surprised at Pol Pot's denials, but his anger,
his disbelief, is evident. He speaks slowly, deliberately: "You do know it was
not 'Youn' , nor Siam or European, who created Tuol Sleng - it was Khmer."
Vann Nath knows what he is talking about. He spent 365 days of his life in the S-21
(Tuol Sleng) detention and torture center, from January 7, 1978 to January 7, 1979.
This 52-year-old man, with gray hair and a gentle, lined face, is one of only a handful
of survivors of the best-known example of the barbarity of Pol Pot's Cambodia.
"I am speechless," Nath says when told what Pol Pot said about Tuol Sleng
in his first interview in 18 years. "It was at Tuol Sleng that I first heard
the name of Pol Pot.
"Tuol Sleng was not a secret place," Nath continues. "The prisoners
came from all over the country. It was not a simple thing. Lots of people were brought
to Tuol Sleng, especially in the last few months before the Vietnamese came - full
squads of soldiers in uniforms were [imprisoned there].
"And a leader of a country is supposed to know what is happening in his town.
Even if Pol Pot never came to Tuol Sleng, his subordinates came to make reports on
the 'treason' of the prisoners. Pol Pot would have been aware of that."
While Pol Pot's words of "My conscience is clear" echoed around the world
in the wake of Nate Thayer's Oct 16 interview with the veteran Khmer Rouge leader,
Vann Nath didn't hear of them until told by the Post. The same week that he learned
of Pol Pot's refusal to show remorse, to offer any apology, Nath was given another
sharp reminder of the past - Ieng Sary came to town.
"I saw Ieng Sary on television last night. He says there is no evidence [against
him]. He is a crazy guy," Nath says of the Oct 30 press conference given by
Pol Pot's former Foreign Minister, who also denies responsibility for mass murder.
"Of course, I am surprised," he said of Ieng Sary coming to Phnom Penh.
"But what can I do? As simple people, if we say something, we are accused of
stirring up the political situation. No one supports us."
Ieng Sary wasn't able to visit Tuol Sleng, now a museum and popular tourism site,
during his visit to Phnom Penh. His schedule was "too tight" to include
it in a sightseeing tour he was given, Sary said, laughing, in reply to a question
at his press conference.
Vann Nath didn't have such constraints. He was prepared to accompany the Post to
his former prison because he, at least, doesn't want people to "forget what
"That is where I was brought first," Nath says as he drives down Street
360, pointing to a villa a few doors from the Tuol Sleng gates. "I was interrogated
Nath, a painter before Pol Pot took power, explains that he had first been arrested
in Battambang province. He was later accused of being an American spy. "I can't
even speak English or French, and they said I was a spy for the CIA," he recalls
of the Kafkaesque charge.
Sent to Phnom Penh, Nath was taken to the villa and, from there, was blindfolded,
tied around the neck with rope and marched in line with other prisoners to Tuol Sleng.
"I arrived in Tuol Sleng at night, around 8pm. I heard many voices, but I was
blindfolded and I couldn't see. When they took the blindfold off, I saw that there
were buildings - A, B, C and D - and I realized that there were lots of prisoners."
As he enters the gates of Tuol Sleng today, Nath points toward the left, to Building
A. "This was the special building, for special prisoners. I do not know who
they were but I think they could have been Pol Pot's ministers."
Nath enters Building B. The walls now bear hundreds of pictures of people who went
through Tuol Sleng. "All the people who have their pictures on this wall have
died," he says.
Nath points to one photo. It shows a woman lying on her side, her head turned away,
eyes closed, hair strewn across her face.
"I remember when that picture was taken. The woman jumped from the second floor
of Building C. She was being taken to be interrogated. She was wearing striped pajamas.
She jumped by herself, to commit suicide."
As the woman lay dead below, her captors took her photograph. It was part of the
elaborate documentation of Tuol Sleng's inmates; it was for the files, Nath explains.
At his home, carefully tucked away, Nath has the pictures of him taken upon his arrival
at the prison: two shots, from the front and side, showing a young man in a black
shirt, with skinny cheeks and transfixed eyes. It's difficult to recognize the Nath
of today in the photographs, his dark hair having turned so white. Only his thick
eyebrows look the same.
"I didn't understand why they were taking pictures of me but I didn't dare ask,"
says Nath as he looks at the pictures, which he found in 1980 when he was helping
a German television crew research Tuol Sleng.
In the mugshot, he bears a black board around his neck, with his name, date of entry
to Tuol Sleng - January 7, 1978 - and a number. "That was my number: 55,"
he explains softly.
As he talks, Nath wrings his hands. From time to time, he shuffles his legs nervously.
His eyes occasionally redden, and he wipes them with a hand. Walking around Tuol
Sleng, smoking on a series of cigarettes, he often keeps silent. When he talks, it
is with a low voice, as though he is talking to himself.
"They used to torture prisoners outside on mornings like this," he says
as he wanders though an alley between two buildings. "You would hear the voices.
All the prisoners would hear when someone was tortured because of their cries."
Coming to a few coconut trees in front of one building, he remarks: "At that
time, the coconut trees were very small. Now, the only different thing here is that
the coconut trees are taller.
"When I first arrived here, they sent me to the first floor and I saw the other
prisoners, who were skinny and pale. Their hair was down to their shoulders. I thought
they had been in the prison for a long time. Men and women looked the same.
"During the first night, I had some hope but all my hope had gone away by the
time morning came... I was so hungry. I could not see anything else but the sky and
the top of these coconut trees. I tell you I felt so hungry. When I saw the coconut
leaves, I dreamed of eating a small piece of coconut. I thought it would be so delicious."
Held in a large cell with 50-60 inmates, Nath says they were fed from a pot of rice
soup. He holds out his hands to show how wide the pot was: about the size of a papaya.
"It was to feed 50 people. We had a small cup of soup between two people; my
share was about two spoonfuls. [We received it] at 8am and 8pm. Between that we could
not eat, or drink a drop of water."
Nath says he was never tortured or interrogated at Tuol Sleng - he had been interrogated
before he arrived there. He never saw anyone being tortured; he just heard their
"When I arrived I understood straight away that it was a prison. As I entered
the prison, I knew my life was finished. I knew there was no way to get out alive.
"When I lived there I never thought about my freedom. I only thought about the
day of my death and that it could be tomorrow or the next day. When I think back
to those days I feel very anxious because [I know] so few survived."
If there's one question which has haunted Nath for the 18 years since the collapse
of the Pol Pot regime, it's this: Why me? Why, out of 16,000 people who went through
Tuol Sleng, should he be among the very few - a total of seven survivors have been
documented - who came out alive?
"I do not understand why I survived. I still do not understand... [Because I]
was a painter? But the other painters were killed before me. Why not me?"
It is painting which appears to have saved Nath's life: he was put to work at Tuol
Sleng producing portraits and cement busts of Pol Pot - the man who today denies
knowing about the prison.
"After a month in Tuol Sleng, I couldn't walk," recounts Nath. "I
was carried out by two soldiers. They brought to me to the chief [Duch, the head
of S-21], who asked me whether I could draw pictures and how long I had been a painter.
I said since 1965, but I had not painted during the Khmer Rouge regime. But I said
that I could try.
"When they asked me to paint, I was very weak. My hands were shaking. Duch said
I needed to rest... and then I could work. The next day, they brought me a big bowl
of rice with karko [soup with vegetables]. It was very good. The smell was enough
to make me fell stronger.
"I had not eaten for a long time and I knew stories of people who died because
they ate too fast. The guards were around me, watching me, and they said 'Do not
eat too much, otherwise you will die.' When I put a spoon of rice in my mouth, my
jaw hurt. I realized everything in my body was not working. I ate three spoonfuls
to get my stomach and my jaw used to food again. Then I increased it little by little.
"A few days later, I tried to work," says Nath, recalling that he was given
a photograph of Pol Pot as a model. "First, I painted a Pol Pot picture, two
meters long and one meter wide. It wasn't a success. You couldn't recognize Pol Pot.
My brain was confused. I had too many things in my mind. I was thinking of my family
and at the same time, I was thinking if I couldn't paint well, I would be killed.
"Duch came often to ask 'Are you finished?' I said 'Not yet, not yet.' Duch
was clever. He knew what I was thinking. He told me I should try to paint another
picture and forget that one. He asked me to paint in black and white but I didn't
know how to do it. I painted but did not succeed, so the boss ordered Peng [one of
his subordinates] to find colors for me. Peng told me 'Be careful, if I get all of
these things for you and if you still cannot paint, be ready [to die]'.
"My paintings became better and better. The boss was happy - he could recognize
Pol Pot. The boss was clever - he let me work freely, without having to worry my
brain. I painted eight pictures of Pol Pot and then I was sent to help with the sculptures."
"That was my work," says Nath
as he enters a room of Tuol Sleng where a stone bust of Pol Pot's head, which he
and several other inmates crafted, sits today. He walks up and studies it, running
his hands over the battered statue, parts of it now broken off or corroded away.
"I myself, as a simple citizen, face up to my responsibilities. A leader of
a country who does not face up to his responsibilities is not human," he declares,
turning the conversation back to Pol Pot's denials.
Told that Pol Pot had refused to give an apology to the Cambodian people, Nath is
visibly annoyed, waving his hands to stress his words: "It is unbelievable.
When someone kills the father a few meters away from the family, when he creates
the famine, the disorder and now says that these are not bad actions!
"Even if Pol Pot did not do it with his own hands, the people wearing black
uniforms and sandals were called Pol Pot. Even if it was not Pol Pot himself, they
were his subordinates.
"I cannot understand. Maybe Pol Pot is too old and he is losing his memory or
does not understand his actions. He talks like a child, because he does not take
Moving on to Building D, Nath points out some more of his artworks - these ones produced
after Pol Pot's overthrow - which graphically depict what he has difficulty putting
One, a large painting, shows a skeletal man being carried upside down on a bamboo
pole between two guards. The caption reads: 'A dying prisoner brought to the interrogation
"This is my painting. I did it in September 1979 [after the Vietnamese invasion
toppled Pol Pot], when the government started to open this as a museum.
"I actually saw this scene with my own eyes. There is another scene I haven't
painted. It is when the prisoners were carried in a wheelbarrow, like pigs. They
were too weak to walk. They were taking them to Choeung Ek [where most of Tuol Sleng's
victims were executed].
"It took me one week to draw this painting. Between thinking about it and painting
it. I had to remind myself of what had happened. The government did not know anything
of what had happened; they asked me to paint what I knew had actually happened here".
After a moment's pause, he adds: "It was not easy to paint."
As he stands there, a group of Japanese tourists pass by Nath. He remarks that the
tourist visits are not well-organized; there is no one to show them around, to tell
them what this place really means.
Outside, he passes a shop which caters to tourists. He thumbs through a copy of David
Chandler's book on Pol Pot on sale there, alongside cans of Coca-Cola. He wonders
aloud whether it's proper to have a shop at a place like this.
As he heads toward the gates of Tuol Sleng to leave, he recounts the day - January
7, 1979, as Vietnamese troops moved in to occupy Phnom Penh - that the nightmare
came to an end.
"I was in a room where I was working with 12 other people. At noon, seven Khmer
Rouge soldiers came and opened the door and told us to walk out in a line. They told
us 'If you put just one foot out of line, we will kill you.'
"They sent us outside and kept us in a villa. At 5pm we were walked toward Tuol
Tum Poung. From there we went toward Chamkar Dong [on the road to Kampong Speu].
Along the way I noticed the families of the Khmer Rouge were with us. I had more
hope, even if I was still worried. I thought that if they wanted to kill us they
would have killed us in the prison.
"We reached Chamkar Dong at dusk. We kept on going the next morning and in Ang
Snoul we tried to cross Route 4. A Vietnamese truck arrived and fighting erupted
between Vietnamese and Khmer soldiers and Khmer Rouge soldiers. I used the opportunity
to escape. Four people escaped with me."
No. 55 was a free man.
"After I got away, I went back to Phnom Penh. I was a civilian for one month
and then I joined the army because I thought that the Khmer Rouge were still a threat.
It was to protect myself - I believed there were still Khmer Rouge around the city."
It was four months before Nath was able to get to Battambang to see if he could find
his wife and two children. Arriving in his home village, he went to his brother's
"He told me that my children were dead; only my wife survived. My brother explained
where my wife was. I walked there, it was three kilometers away. It was dark when
I arrived. My wife didn't recognize me. She looked like a hopeless person. We stood
there, looking at each other, unable to move, unable to speak.
"When I had left Tuol Sleng, I thought that I couldn't have any more problems.
But then I learned my two children were dead."
Today, Nath is still with his wife and they have two more children. Retired from
the army, he and his family live in Phnom Penh and run a restaurant. He recently
wote a book, to be published soon in the United States, on his experiences at Tuol
"I worry that the younger generation could forget what happened. That is why
I wanted to write a book. It is very important they know what happened, to tell them
that if they want to get involved in politics they have to avoid killing people.
They must not regard the life of humans as the life of animals."
Nath has been to Tuol Sleng museum many times, sometimes with journalists and other
times by himself, but never with his wife or children.
"I don't want to. I told them my story but I never took them here. How can I
show them on my own? They can come in a group, with a school class."
He says that he has never been interviewed by a Khmer newspaper. "Maybe because
my story is banal for the Khmer - everyone lived through bad stories at that time.
Even as a prisoner at Tuol Sleng I didn't see everything. It was only in 1982, 1983,
1984 that I heard what others saw or lived through and it is only after that I realized
all that happened in Tuol Sleng."
As for justice, Nath isn't optimistic that Pol Pot, Ieng Sary or the others will
ever face an international tribunal. But he believes in natural justice, one way
"I think one harvests what one has sown. According to the Buddhist religion,
good actions produce good results, bad actions produce bad results. The peasant harvests
the rice, the fisherman catches the fish and Pol Pot harvests the actions he has
committed - he will reap what he has sown."