Vann Nath in a Battambang prison in 1977. He was later tranfered to the Tuol Sleng torture center in Phnom Penh.
Roughly 17,000 people entered S-21. Only seven people
came out alive. Now one survivor has written the story of
what happened inside the hellish Khmer Rouge prison and
torture center better known as Tuol Sleng.
In "A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the
Khmer Rouge's S-21", Vann Nath has chronicled his
experiences throughout Cambodia's Khmer Rouge period from
1975-79. He spent a full year inside Tuol Sleng, and much
of the book is taken up with his day-by-day experiences
inside the prison.
"Each day they would take some prisoners out of my
room to be interrogated. They would handcuff and
blindfold the prisoners before they left the room.
Sometimes some of the prisoners came back with wounds or
blood on their bodies, while others disappeared.
Prisoners who had been there when I arrived started dying
in the room, one by one. If a prisoner died in the
morning, they would not take him out until night,"
With the pending arrival of a UN panel of experts to
examine the available evidence against the Khmer Rouge,
Nath's recollections gain new relevance. KR researcher
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of
Cambodia, said the experts would visit Cambodia in the
third week of September.
"He can be a good living witness," Chhang said
of Nath. "They should talk to him."
Nath's book took four years to complete because of the
difficulty of dredging up the memories, Nath told the
Post. "At some points just to write a page took more
than two weeks... To write this book was painful, but I
at least feel I have left something for future
generations from my life."
Although he estimates he has been interviewed by 100
journalists, he said he wrote the book to tell his story
in his own words. He writes in a matter-of-fact style
that adds to the Kafkaesque horror of the incidents, such
as his unexplained arrest at the end of 1977 - which led
"'What's happening to me?' I cried. 'What have I
'I don't know,' Luom said. 'It's the order from the
I could hardly believe it. I stood like a statue. My body
was a[s] light as cotton. I allowed them to tie me like a
In prison, Nath's life was saved by the fact he was an
artist and told his captors so. The notorious prison
chief, Deuch, selected him to paint portraits and make
sculptures of KR supremo Pol Pot.
He led a relatively privileged existence inside S-21,
unshackled and with sufficient food. But he knew his life
depended on his brushstrokes, as he was aware of the
terrible deaths by starvation and torture that occurred
outside the artists' room.
"I could hear screams of pain from every corner of
the prison. I felt a twinge of pain in my body at each
scream... I could hear the guards demanding the truth,
the acts of betrayal, the names of collaborators."
Nath recreates details and dialogue with the vivid
exactitude that comes from traumatic memories. "I
cannot forget anything... this is the most crucial time
in my life, I will remember it forever," he
The very readable English text captures what translator
Moeun Chhean Nariddh said is the clarity of the original
Khmer writing. "He seems to have a very good memory
- I think it's because he's a painter, he's very good at
grabbing an image," Chhean Nariddh said.
Vann Nath is painting again, after escaping Tuol Sleng in
1979 as Phnom Penh fell to the invading Vietnamese army
and then spending a decade in the army. When Tuol Sleng
was re-opened as a genocide museum, Nath painted the
torture scenes he remembered, which now hang on the
walls. Some of the paintings are reproduced in the book,
along with photographs of Nath.
A final scene of the book takes place in the museum. In
1996, Nath ran into the brutal former prison security
chief, Huy. He recounts how he ranthrough a gamut of
emotions, finally confronting Huy and asking him if his
paintings were exaggerated.
"'No, they are not exaggerated," [Huy] said.
'There were scenes much more brutal than that.'"
Nath says, his book, too, is an unexaggerated testament
to what happened - fulfilling a long-held ambition to
bear witness and warn: "never again".
"This was the main desire of my life... I am happy
because I have achieved victory, success for me," he
"Whether the world is interested in reading this
book is another story, but the important thing is that
this book is important for Khmer heritage in the
future... when they understand about that they will
prevent that from reoccurring."
As a heartfelt, clear-eyed memoir of a terrible chapter
of Cambodian history, the world should be interested in
reading this book.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia will host a
book launch and painting exhibition on Saturday, Aug 29
at 7pm. Nath will be on hand to sign copies of his book.
(Reviewed by Elizabeth Moorthy)
A Cambodian Prison Portrait:
One Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21
By Vann Nath, translation by Moeun Chhean Nariddh
White Lotus, Bangkok 1998, 118 pp. $20