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Yesterday evening, I read about the death of Vann Nath, the Cambodian artist who survived the Khmer Rouge prison S-21 (Tuol Sleng).

Here’s The Independent‘s obituary:

Vann Nath

Vann Nath, who died on 5 September aged 66, was an artist who was among only seven people to survive Cambodia’s most notorious prison of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s and who later depicted the facility’s horrific torture. Vann Nath, whose death leaves only two surviving inmates of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, was the first of the survivors to testify before a UN-backed tribunal trying members of the Khmer Rouge regime on war crimes charges.

Born in 1946, Vann Nath trained as an artist, but was later forced to work at a co-operative farm after the Khmer Rouge seized power in April 1975. He was accused of being an enemy of the regime in 1978 and imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, and kept there until January 1979, when the regime fled ahead of invading Vietnamese troops, who found only seven inmates alive at the prison.

Between April 1975 and late 1978 up to 16,000 people were tortured at the former school before being taken to the “killing fields” outside the capital and executed, most often with a blow to the back of their neck. Vann Nath was spared because he was ordered to paint and sculpt portraits of the late Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. He would later paint images of torture such as waterboarding at Tuol Sleng and write a memoir of his year spent there. The regime’s policies left about 1.7 million people dead through overwork, disease, malnutrition and execution.

In June 2009, Vann Nath testified before Cambodia’s war crimes tribunal against Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, who was in charge of S-21 from 1975-78. Duch, now 68, was sentenced to 35 years in prison in July last year.”

I visited Tuol Sleng when I was in Cambodia and it made a lasting impression on me. The photograph below was taken by Jacques Marais as we stood at the entrance to the prison, which is now a genocide museum. Haunting, isn’t it?

I tried to capture the haunting quality of the place in a poem I dedicated to Vann Nath. He survived; but so many did not. What is perhaps most ironic is the fact that this prison was a school before it was turned into a place of torture and mass murder.

Here’s my poem, taken from my book Oleander (Modjaji Books, 2009):

Remembering S-21, Cambodia

– for Vann Nath

I.

This was a school
before it was wire and silence.

Oleander
scented the sunlit courtyard.

This was a school,
with blackboards, white-

and-tan-tiled floors. Children
filled the concrete stairwells.

Then it was wire, shackles,
prisoners taken

from their families. They were beaten,

starved, herded like children,
helpless, fed a gruel

of watery rice. Obedient,
they still starved.

II.

Vann Nath, the painter,
drew his captor’s head.

Kept alive on a whim,
he drew each line

like a precious, living thing.
Each line a lifeline

as long as his captor’s
vanity saw likeness there.

III.

A worker told Vann Nath, ‘Just let things be.’
‘Death stays close to us,’ he said. Vann Nath drew

and sculpted. Nothing else for him to do
but stay close to the enemy, keep silent.

IV.

Under the oleander,
in the silence,
it is a lovely garden.
Children must have

played here, enjoyed
the morning sunlight,
before their parents
fetched them; before dark.

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