Vann Nath - his pictures
His skill as a painter saved his life. Incarcerated in the Khmer Rouge's secret prison at Tuol Sleng, he was beaten, tortured and almost starved to death. But because of his training as an artist back in his home city of Battambang, Vann Nath was spared. He was put to work primarily painting pictures of Pol Pot, the Maoist movement's leader by the camp commandant Duch, although his life continued to hang by a slender thread. Indeed, many of his co-workers were put to death. Up to 17,000 men, women and children were tortured and executed at Tuol Sleng before the end of the regime. The Vietnamese overran Phnom Penh in January 1979, giving Vann Nath the chance to escape, alongwith half a dozen others including Ing Pech and Iem Chan, exactly one year to the day when he first arrived at the prison.
Reunited with his wife and immediate family, although his two sons had not survived the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, he returned to Phnom Penh and to Tuol Sleng to paint scenes of life at S-21 as he'd witnessed it. The Museum of Genocide opened on 7 January 1980 (exactly a year after his escape) and his paintings still hang in the museum today. Nowadays, Vann Nath runs a small restaurant in the capital with his wife and three children and continues to paint in his spare time. His incredible story - A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21 - has now been published by White Lotus Press of Bangkok. A shortened version appeared in the book, The Killing Fields by Chris Riley and Doug Niven. Shown below are all of his paintings that are on display in D Block within the Tuol Sleng compound in Phnom Penh. They make grisly viewing but are an important lasting reminder of the senseless brutality of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror over their own people. Click once on any photo to see a larger version.
Vann Nath - his story
Vann Nath's story has been told in the 1998 White Lotus book, A Cambodian Prison Portrait - One Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21.
Sara Colm also interviewed Vann Nath for the 1996 Twin Palms Press book by Chris Riley and Doug Niven called The Killing Fields. The memoirs are copyright and can be found here.
Below are some photographs from Tuol Sleng, including the picture taken of Vann Nath on his arrival at the prison.
Read an interview with Vann Nath by Amit May here.
Visit the CBC webpages devoted to Vann Nath here.
Read all about Rithy Panh's film on S-21, which includes Vann Nath here.
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