Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Tuol Sleng prisoner tells his own tale

Tuol Sleng prisoner tells his own tale

Tuol Sleng prisoner tells his own tale

SELF PORTRAIT

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,"

he writes.

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

to hisimprisonment:

"'What's happening to me?' I cried. 'What have I

done wrong?'

'I don't know,' Luom said. 'It's the order from the

district chief.'

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

pig."

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.

Vann Nath

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

explained.

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

said.

"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

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