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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Tuol Sleng painter recovers from surgery in Bangkok

Tuol Sleng painter recovers from surgery in Bangkok

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Tuol.jpg

S-21 prison survivor and painter Vann Nath earlier this year.

L egendary painter and Tuol Sleng survivor Vann Nath is recovering in a Bangkok hospital after an operation to save him from permanent paralysis.

Many of Nath's harrowing paintings documenting Khmer Rouge atrocities hang in Tuol Sleng. To many they are inextricably linked to the torture center where Nath spent a year painting portraits of Pol Pot. Spared because of his painting skill he was one of only seven people who survived.

Nath, 61, has recently been plagued by extreme pain caused by kidney disease, and has only been able to paint three paintings this year. He must undertake expensive dialysis treatment every week to survive as his kidneys can barely function.

Then last week his leg suddenly became paralyzed and his family rushed him to Bangkok.

His son-in-law Lon Nara said Thai doctors took a graft from Nath's hip to replace an infected vertebra in his neck that was on the verge of spreading to his entire spinal column

"If he hadn't had the operation he would have been paralyzed," Nara said, speaking from Nath's bedside.

"He's been very weak, so tuberculosis took advantage. They have no idea when he got TB - it could have been a long time ago."

Nara said. Nath must stay in hospital at least another two weeks with the treatment costing over $10 000.

"Some of the money came from his painting, some from his [Phnom Penh] restaurant and he has many friends," Nara said.

"Now he's okay, but we're still not sure what the outcome will be."

The only cure for Nath's kidney condition would be a risky $80 000 kidney transplant in France.

"The transplant sometimes doesn't work," Nara said. "He has no choice but to live with the pain. He keeps writing and painting even when he is in ill health."

Nara said Nath is planning a Khmer version of his well-known book A Cambodian prison portrait: One year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21, and some new accompanying sketches.

Nath's work featured in a November exhibition of Khmer contemporary art at Sala Art gallery in Phnom Penh. Director Dana Langlois visited Nath in hospital after his operation.

"He was obviously groggy but he seems okay," Langlois said.

"I am a little shy to know how to talk with him. He's such a venerated individual that I'm a little in awe of him.

"Physically he's not capable of producing enough work, but Vann Nath is one of the most valuable Cambodian artists because he paints from the heart - he needs to do it. It's very hard for Cambodians to view art other than as a way to make money or as ornamentation. But Vann Nath understands the purpose of art, and it's obvious."

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