I Will Always See Pol Pot's Face
Paintings by Vann Nath courtesy of Thomas Nordanstad
Vann Nath: In 1978, I was taken to the notorious S-21 prison. I had in my head that I was not going to live. I thought I was a dead man.
We were all in one room. We lay naked down on the floor, packed next to each other in handcuffs, and we tried to sleep.
The soldiers wore black uniforms. They were young. Some of them were only about 13 or 14 years old, but they had no mercy. Their accusation of “khmang”—enemy—was so powerful. It separated fathers, mothers, children, and siblings from each other.
Every four days, they gave us a bath. They brought hoses up from downstairs and sprayed everyone from the doorway. Each day they would take some prisoners out of my room to be interrogated. Some prisoners came back with wounds or with blood on their bodies; others disappeared. Prisoners started dying in the room, one by one. If a prisoner died in the morning, the guards would not take him out until night. If I needed to defecate I asked the guards to bring the bucket over.
I was lucky. They found out I can draw. They used me a lot to do drawings. All the time they wanted me to draw Pol Pot. They gave me his picture and I would draw. I drew him from different angles and in all different environments. But I never met Pol Pot. He never knew I was the artist that did his pictures.
I had no feelings back then. All I had in mind was to stay alive and find a way to escape. One day, I found a way. There was a big gunfight going on with the Vietnamese army. From all directions artillery was turned on Phnom Penh. In all the chaos I just broke off and made it out of the city.
I was lucky to find my wife. It was 1979. She cried as she told me that both our sons had died.
Today, I draw nature and beautiful things. I like to draw happy things, like flowers and portraits of people’s kids, as long as it brings happy memories. But basically, I draw by my feelings, so I do not only draw happy things. I also draw from memories back when I was in the camp.
AS TOLD TO CYRIL HELLMAN
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