Andy Brouwer's Cambodia Tales

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 and is reproduced here. 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.

A hanging bar in the school grounds is used to extract confessions An upstairs room is used as a mass detention cell

The painting depicts the use of the wooden bath belowVann Nath close-up - self portraitWater torture is used to break the will of the victim

Victims were treated like animalsWhipping was another form of torture regularly used

Pliers and scorpions were also usedMore torture techniques employed by the S-21 guards

Vann Nath - beaten, tortured and near starvationA victim's throat is cut by his captors

A prisoner is immersed into a vat of waterA mother forced to give up her baby child

A child is beaten against a tree at Choeung EkPrisoners led to their deaths in the killing fields

The final moment in the life of nearly 17,000 victimsChildren were butchered by the Khmer Rouge

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