The next day, we went out to interview Van Nath, one of only two remaining survivors of The Khmer Rouge prison, S21. Van Nath had been subjected to forced labor and torture, like everyone else, during Khmer Rouge time. Almost immediately after gaining control of Phnom Penh in 1975, the KR had forced the city’s evacuation. Van Nath was sent to work in a farming commune, in the countryside. And for the entire four years of the regime, the city remained a ghost town.
At one point, Van Nath was summoned to a meeting with the commune head. Although he was never actually informed of any charges against him, he was put in a regional jail, where he was tortured. Later, he was taken to S 21, where he was also tortured, and where he was still not informed of charged against him. One-day, guards took him from his cell and locked him in a workshop, where he was instructed to paint a portrait of Pol Pot. The first portrait was quite bad, given the circumstances. But the second one pleased his captors enough that they allowed him and a few other artists to remain alive, and to work all day as artists, making busts and paintings of Pol Pot.
After the prison was liberated in 1979, Van Nath set out to paint portraits of the suffering he had seen at the prison. His horridly moving paintings depict images of torture and murder. One is of a man with his arm clamped inside of a box; one soldier is ripping off his fingernails with pliers while another doused the open wounds with alcohol. Another is of a baby being ripped away from a mother. When KR people were killed in S 21 the whole family was killed. Babies were stomped or smashed. Children were killed, with a blow by a garden hoe, between the seventh and eighth vertebrae. There are written accounts of KR soldiers cutting fetuses out of pregnant women.
All of this Van Nath painted. His portraits, to this day, remain one of the most moving tributes to the horrors of men.
I was very excited about meeting Van Nath, as I had read his book, and found it very moving. That morning, before going to meet Richard, when I packed my film and notebook, I was careful to pack a pen, so Richard wouldn’t get angry. At the last minute, just as I was stepping out the door, I remembered to grab a copy of Van Nath’s book, which I had wanted him to sign.
Richard and I met Van Nath at an abandoned restaurant on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. He led us into the living room of his little house, located behind the restaurant. His living room was full of remembrances of S21. Every prisoner had to be photographed. And these awful portraits are one of the most upsetting aspects of a visit to the prison. Van Nath had his prison photo hanging in his living room, as well as some of his gorier paintings.
When I read Senator John McCain’s book, he said that he had become so famous for the suffering he had endured in the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous prison for US Airman in North Vietnam. One of the first Americans to be captured, he endured captivity longer than almost any other survivor. When his plane crashed, his arms and legs had been horribly damaged, and were never treated during his lengthy imprisonment. So, he was deformed, and limped severely, signaling even the most casual of observers to his suffering. Further attention was called to John McCain, because his father had been a very high-ranking naval officer. All of this combined so that when he returned form Vietnam he was a much sought after speaker. And, although he regularly speaks in public, he said that he didn’t want to become a professional victim. And so he sought to make a career for himself, in politics, rather than just to live on the lecture circuit, indefinitely retelling his tales of Vietnam.
As much as I respected Van Nath, the thought crossed my mind that he was a “professional victim.” In fact, no sooner had we sat down, than he said, “Could you please make this fast? I have some other journalist coming at eleven.” The previous day we couldn’t get in to see him at all. He had journalists stacked up like hotcakes.
He told us that, he has two more interviews, both scheduled for ten o’clock, and that he was interviewed almost every day.
I felt a bit like a jealous lover. “Could you do that a little faster? My boyfriend will be home soon.”
If he hadn’t been the painter of Toul Slang prison he would have been just another Khmer who had suffered and then gone on with his life. Was his suffering any worse than the suffering endured by the average Khmer?
To break the ice, I asked him to sign my book. The second he set eyes on the copy I held out to him, he frowned. My hart sank. Like a lightning bolt, I knew what he was about to say, before he said it.
“That is a pirate copy,” he said, turning up his nose. He glanced at his watch. If it hadn’t been for Richard, this would have been the shortest interview in history.
“I’d like to buy a proper copy of the book,” said Richard with a smile, reaching for his wallet.
Van Nath warmed a little. But he still hated me.
“I’ll go wait in the car,” I told Richard under my breath.
“In fact, give us two copies,” he added. “One for Antonio.”
Van Nath charged Richard $20 for each of the thin, paperback volumes. Once the forty dollars was in his pockets, Van Nath was all smiles. “So, what do you want to know?”
This was a good question. I really hadn’t prepared anything. What should I ask him? I could ask him about his life and the KR, but that was well documented in his book.
According to the book he hadn’t been in Lon Nol’s army. But he served in the army under the Vietnamese, and later in the regular Cambodian forces which he retired from. His job in the army was painter.
Richard asked him if he had been approached about participating in the KR trials. Van Nath’s answer was the he was willing to participate, but he didn’t know what his roll would be. “I guess I will be a witness,” he said.
Richard, who had just finished reading the book Voices of S 21, was obsessed with the point that higher ups all claim that they didn’t know what was happening below. So, they weren’t responsible. And lower downs all claimed that they were just following orders from above, so they weren’t responsible. When he formulated this point as a question to Van Nath, his answer was shocking, if appropriate.
“The trials are not the same as in Khmer Rouge time, because in the trials the guilty will have as many rights as the victims.”
He shook his head, and spouted what could have been the party’s answer to Richard’s question regarding guilt. “The trial will find who is right and who is wrong.”
Van Nathe was invited to USA in 2002 to have an art exhibition. While there, he received a certificate form the governor of New York and the mayor of Boston both of which he was very proud of.