Artist's life a model for reconciliation
Vann Nath used his experience to heal the past by befriending the man who had imprisoned him
September 12, 2011
Cambodia bade farewell last week to Vann Nath, well known as one of the seven survivors of the S-21 torture center known as Tuol Sleng. But for me, he will always personify the Cambodian capacity to remember, heal and reconcile its past.
Vann Nath was arrested in Battambang on December 29, 1977. One of his last paintings depicted his transportation by the Khmer Rouge to Phnom Penh, where he was incarcerated at S-21.
His abilities as an artist were identified, and he was put to work painting and sculpting images of the KR leader Pol Pot – a job that saved him from the fate of so many others at S-21 and enabled him to portray vividly the horrors he witnessed within the walls of the torture center.
In later years, after the Vietnamese army drove the Khmer Rouge from power, Vann Nath would return to the site of so much terror, now converted to a genocide museum, and share his story with students, researchers, archivists and tourists.
One day, Vann Nath saw a shy Cambodian man walking the grounds of the former prison. He recognized the man as a former guard who had watched over him. Vann Nath approached and asked if the former guard recognized him. The man, Him Huy said he did not.
Vann Nath pressed further by mentioning his job as an artist. Him Huy finally relented, admitting that he was a former guard and had returned after many years to remind himself what had happened there and what he had done. He had been living on the outskirts of Phnom Penh as a farmer with his wife and child, hoping that no one would ever know the crimes he had committed.
An old maxim holds that it is not what happens to us in our lives, but how we respond to events that matters most.
Vann Nath could have responded in myriad ways to the appearance of a former oppressor. At that meeting, however, he chose to transform his past experiences and befriend the former guard, even asking him to assist in his mission to share the painful stories of the past in which victims became perpetrators, and perpetrators became victims.
The artist invited Him Huy to look at his paintings to verify the accuracy of his memories. Him Huy acknowledged their veracity. The two survivors went on to share their memories with a larger audience, most notably through the documentary S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which often screens at the Tuol Sleng museum.
In 2006, I had the privilege of attending the opening of a Vann Nath exhibition. On that evening he was presented with an award for his contribution to the promotion of human rights. The Khmer Rouge tribunal was soon to commence, and a journalist suggested to Vann Nath that he must be relieved, as the Tribunal would, before long, provide justice for what he had suffered in Tuol Sleng.
Vann Nath, in his calm, even voice, explained that he had contracted tuberculosis of the spine while at S-21 and that treatment would cost US$10,000 per month. He added that there was not a hospital in Cambodia that could adequately treat his condition. He concluded that when Cambodians had real health care, then they would have justice.
Vann Nath was not just a survivor of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison. He was someone who transformed his experience into an opportunity to heal the past by befriending the very man who had kept him imprisoned, recognising their common identity as victims of Cambodia's bloody past.
As a father and grandfather, Vann Nath used his art to document the past for future generations and reminded us that while the past should indeed be remembered, it is the way Cambodians live today and how their basic needs are met, that will really bring real justice to the Kingdom.
Emma Leslie is founder and director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies in Phnom Penh