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.
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)