Vann Nath, whose talent as an artist helped him survive Cambodia's most notorious prison during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror in the 1970s and whose later paintings bore witness to the prison's many horrors, has died. He was 66.
Vann Nath, who suffered chronic kidney disease that required regular dialysis treatment in recent years and who was hospitalized with a hemorrhaging ulcer in 2010, died Monday in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, after falling into a coma in late August, his daughter, Vann Chan Semin, told the Associated Press on Monday.
Vann Nath was one of only seven prisoners to survive Tuol Sleng prison, a converted high school that was also known as "S-21" and which nearby factory workers called "the place where people go in and never come out."
At least 14,000 Cambodian men, women and children reportedly were brought to the prison, where they were interrogated, tortured and executed from 1975 to 1979.
With Vann Nath's death, only two of the seven surviving former prisoners are left.
Born into a farming family in Battambang, he spent a few years as a monk before apprenticing as an artist. He was operating a small business painting movie posters, billboards and portraits before the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 and he was forced to work in the rice fields.
Vann Nath never knew why he was arrested in January 1978.
"They arrested nearly everyone in my village," he said with a shrug in a 1997 interview with the Los Angeles Times.
Like the dozens of other prisoners who shared his prison cell, he had his ankles shackled to the concrete floor and was given only a few spoonfuls of rice each day. They were so hungry, he once recalled, that they would eat insects that dropped from the ceiling.
But his life in prison changed when guards entered the cell and asked for "the painter."
After being carried into an office, he was shown a picture of Pol Pot and asked if he could paint the Khmer Rouge leader's portrait.
"I was not really sure what I should say," he recalled in The Times interview. "I said, 'Right now, I can't even stand up.'"
Given enough food to keep up his energy, Vann Nath began painting head-and-shoulders portraits of Pol Pot every day. From sunrise to midnight, he recalled, he painted "the same portrait over and over," his quiet work punctuated by the screams of prisoners being tortured.
"I hated him while I was painting him," he recalled. "I wished I could kill him."
Vann Nath had been in the prison nearly a year when Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in late-December 1978 and the Khmer Rouge was soon driven from power.
As chronicled in The Times article, Cambodian guards took the prisoners away to be killed, but they encountered Vietnamese soldiers. During the battle, Vann Nath and six other prisoners managed to escape.
The death toll of the Khmer Rouge was estimated by the U.S. State Department-funded Yale Cambodian Genocide Project to be between 1.2 million and 1.7 million.
Two of Vann Nath's sons died while he was imprisoned. After reuniting with his wife, he reportedly had three more children. He also gained renown as a painter.
Tuol Sleng prison was converted into the Tuol Sleng Memorial and Genocide Museum, which opened in 1980 and contains Vann Nath's paintings depicting the atrocities he witnessed or heard described while in prison, including water torture and electric shock treatment.
There is also a self-portrait of an emaciated Vann Nath during his imprisonment. "I was just a body then," he said in the 1997 interview. "My spirit had gone out."
At the time of the interview, he was living quietly in the large house he owned in Phnom Penh, where he also owned a restaurant that housed a gallery of his work.
He chronicled his story in the 1998 book "A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21," and he was prominently featured in the 2003 documentary "S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine."
Vann Nath testified in 2009 at a United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh that tried the prison's chief, Kaing Guek Eav, who was known as Duch. In July 2010, Duch was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Vann Nath dies at 66; Cambodian painter survived torture in prison
Vann Nath was one of only seven prisoners to survive Tuol Sleng prison, where 14,000 Cambodians were interrogated, tortured and executed from 1975 to 1979.