He's had a heart attack and isn't expected to recover.
Vann Nath is one of only three living people who experienced the merciless hell of Toul Sleng, the Phnom Penh high school that was turned into a torture and murder center by the Khmer Rouge. One of three witnesses to the 24-hour cycle of brutality and death that the Khmer Rouge inflicted on its former friends and loyalists.
And on their families. When someone went into Toul Sleng, the spouse and children went, too. Seventeen thousand Cambodians went in. Seven came out.
But Vann Nath isn't just a witness. He's the witness.
The murderers and sadists at Toul Sleng kept him alive because he was an artist. He could turn out the portraits and sculptures of Brother Number One, Pol Pot, that were in such demand at the time. And when the Vietnamese, to their everlasting credit (and to America's everlasting disgrace for supporting the KR) finally invaded and set the Khmer Rouge running, Vann Nath was one of the seven living among the hundreds of fresh kills they found at Toul Sleng.
And he could do something none of the other survivors could do. They could tell us about hell on earth. He could show us.
This is a mild example of his work. This woman and her child stayed right there, chained, until the guards came and took them to one of the classrooms, complete with blackboard, where the woman was clamped to an iron bedframe and tortured until she was close to death and had confessed listening to Thai radio or eating two servings of rice or saying something uncomplimentary about the regime. Then she signed her confession somehow, and she and the child were taken to the killing field at Cheung Ek, also in Phnom Penh, to be beaten to death with shovels and hoes. The Khmer Rouge were saving bullets.
Seventeen thousand people. Out of almost two million killed nationwide.
The Khmer Rouge were ovethrown in 1979. Forty-two years later, exactly ONE PERSON, the relatively low-ranking commander of Toul Sleng, Duch, has been convicted of crimes, although he still hasn't been sentenced. (The present government of Cambodia claimed to be searching high and low for Duch, until an American reporter walked into Duch's home village and asked where he was. He was led to Duch's house, and his article shamed the government into arresting Duch.)
Vann Nath, explaining hell
After decades of international pressure, the Cambodian government allowed the establishment of an international tribunal to bring the worst of the KR to justice. Since it opened its doors, in 2006, the government has bled it for money and stalled the proceedings so that only Duch has been tried.
Four really big monsters remain: Brother Number Two, Nuon Chea; Ieng Sary, former Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister; his wife, former Minister of Social Affairs Ieng Thirith; and Khieu Samphan, the former Head of state. All were found cunningly hiding in large villas in Phnom Penh.
But now, with only three remaining victims of Toul Sleng, the government of Cambodia, which is richly permeated with former high-ranking Khmer Rouge, has postponed the trial of the remaining four until mid-2012. One of them, Ieng Thirith, isn't feeling well. She might not be well enough to stand trial. Never mind that the prisoners in Toul Sleng and the other prisons didn't get a day off from being tortured and killed when they weren't feeling well. These four ravenous beasts, who are covered in blood from head to foot, who feasted on human flesh and grew fat on it, who brought ultimate defeat and despair to millions of souls -- well, they're ailing. So we may not get closure, as though such a thing were possible, for another year or so.
And Vann Nath is in a coma.