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Artist recounts S-21 ordeal

Artist recounts S-21 ordeal


Photo by: Heng Chivoan

Vann Nath testifies Monday in the trial of Tuol Sleng prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, known during the Khmer Rouge regime as Duch. 

RENOWNED artist Vann Nath wept from the dock at the Khmer Rouge tribunal Monday as he recalled in vivid detail the hellish living conditions at Tuol Sleng prison, where, he said, detainees routinely fell asleep to the sound of screaming and the smell of decomposing bodies.

Vann Nath avoided becoming one of the more than 12,000 Tuol Sleng detainees who were executed by painting portraits of Khmer Rouge regime leaders.

In the first survivor testimony heard during the trial of prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, Vann Nath described for the court a facility in which victims were treated as subhuman.

"The condition was so inhumane and the food was so little," said Vann Nath. "We were inflicted with torture physically and mentally. We were between animals and human beings."

The 63-year-old, who was imprisoned at the facility in 1978 for one year, is one of only four Tuol Sleng survivors expected to testify at the tribunal this week.

Early in his time at the prison, he was personally selected by Duch to be imprisoned in a workshop outside the jail cells on the prison grounds.

There he was asked to paint portraits of Pol Pot, a man he said Monday he did not recognise at the time.

"[A guard] gave me a big photo and I did not know who he was ... he asked me to do a big portrait," Vann Nath said.

"I was trembling holding the brush. I knew if I did not paint well I would be in big trouble," he added.

Duch listened attentively as Vann Nath described how he remembered the ex-jailer: "He was one of the leaders who was clever, vigilant, and showed his power," Vann Nath said, keeping his head and eyes to the floor.

"We were afraid and had to respect him.... Every time he entered the room I dared not sit in a chair. I stood up and waited for his instructions," he added.

Judges presented several of his paintings to the court and asked the artist to carefully describe them. Vann Nath explained that only some were based on things he had seen, adding that others were based on the recollections of prisoners. Despite his viewpoint fom outside the cells, Vann Nath told judges that he still saw evidence of torture: "I saw the blood stains on the floor, I saw the torture implements."

He confirmed that he had been taken by guards to see a woman leap to her death from the upper floors of the prison. He said another woman claimed to have been tortured with poisonous insects - a claim Duch has denied.

Vann Nath was arrested by Khmer Rouge soldiers in December 1977 while working in a rice paddy in Battambang province. He was accused of trying to overthrow the regime and was sent to Tuol Sleng prison the following year.  

He was separated from his wife and children and did not see his children again.  He said Monday that he hoped Duch's trial would provide some form of catharsis.

"The suffering and separation that happened to me during the one-year period cannot be easily erased from my memory," he said.

"I never imagined that I would be able to sit in this courtroom today to describe my plight, my experience. I hope by the end that justice can be tangible, can be seen by everybody, something I expect as a result of this chamber. Even though I've tried my best to forget, it still haunts me."

Dispute over footage

Co-prosecutor Robert Petit requested judges' permission to ask Vann Nath questions on controversial footage of Tuol Sleng shot by Vietnamese soldiers soon after they entered Phnom Penh in 1979.

The request was dismissed on the grounds that it was unclear whether the footage was genuine or propaganda produced by the authorities in Hanoi, as defence lawyers have claimed. 


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