Sunday, September 4, 2011

Down to three

Vann Nath is in a coma.

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.


  1. I well remember the shock of hearing about this from our guide in Cambodia when Stan and I visited. Somehow I had imagined that summary justice had been done to the perpetrators of these outrages by the people if no one else. A large black Hummer with tinted windows drove past, and he set us straight on that idea. Then we went to a glass tower containing human skulls...

  2. How can this be? I admit to having a very limited knowledge of this despicable chapter in history but thought that these horrible, horrible people had met some sort of justice. The people of Cambodia must be angles not to storm these houses and rip the hearts out of these monsters.

    And what is it about us humans that time and again allows insane and immoral people to obtain power and conduct such atrocities? I do not get it.


  3. I wish the world were better. Or at least getting better. Or maybe even trying to get better. But it is not. Attention spans are too short. And evil knows that.


  4. Thanks in large part to the German mania for records, the Allied armies found mountains of evidence proving that the Final Solution was not a myth. The Jews, the Roma, the people of the occupied countries, and the ordinary man-in-the-street German who didn't join the Nazi party were arrested, imprisoned, and killed in the concentration camps.

    Unlike the Cambodians, the western European victims of the Nazis had relatives, friends, neighbors, and coreligionists who had already established themselves in the United States. They provided a voice for the Holocaust survivors until they were able to speak for themselves. Elie Wiesel's NIGHT won the Nobel Prize for Literature and it is part of the curriculum in many schools in the United States. Survivors speak at middle schools and high schools. Steven Spielberg's Shoah Project is recording the stories of the survivors before it is too late.

    The Cambodians have not had the numbers or the financial resources to make their stories known. Culturally, people in the US can relate to German authors and composers because the majority of us can still trace our ancestors to the countries of western Europe. We have no such connection to the cultures of the east.

    THE KILLING FIELDS is an exceptional movie but it is British and not the product of Steven Spielberg. It did not get the attention that was showered on SCHINDLER'S LIST.

    We Americans are a funny group. For a brief moment, we were aware of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and we brought the horror to those Americans who watch the news and read newspapers. Then we moved on to something else. We can't be expected to know the history of another country when we don't know our own.

    In the current political and cultural climate, we the people don't care about the people next door. We are now drained of our ability to empathize or to see that there by the grace of God go we. Martin Niemoller, a Lutheran minister, was a prisoner in Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps between 1937 and 1945. After his experiences he wrote:

    "When they came for the Communists, I didn't protest. When they came for the trade unionists, I didn't protest. When they came for the Jews, I didn't protest. When they came for me, there was no one left to protest."

    What happened in Cambodia was no less a tragedy and a betrayal of humanity than what happened to the victims of the Holocaust. THE KILLING FIELDS may be shown on some cable channel in the middle of the night, but it isn't a title many people would recognize. The same thing is happening in other parts of the world and there is no one to protest.

    Lessons not learned.

  5. Hi, everyone --

    I met Vann Nath once, when I was researching the character of Madame Wing in my book A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART. He was a -- I don't know what other word to use -- a luminous man. He had gone through fire and come out with the knowledge of what people could do to others and had found, if not peace, acceptance. I was with him only about half an hour, and I'll never forget it.

    The only time I've ever felt insecure in SE Asia was in Cambodia when one of those black Hummers pulled me and my driver over on our third day of trying to talk to former Toul Sleng guards. My driver was terrified. He convinced them that I wrote for Time magazine, and they left, but not before drilling me for about ten seconds with the deadest stares I've ever experienced.

    After you've been in Cambodia for a while, it's like it used to be in Germany: you look at all men of a certain age and wonder which side of the wire they'd been on.

    The United States put the KR in power by bombing Cambodia in the first place (more bombs than had been dropped on Europe in WW II), thereby giving the revolution the boost it needed, and then supporting the Khmer Rouge because they hated the Vietnamese and the enemy of our enemy, etc. If there were justice, Henry Kissinger would be dropped out of a plane about 10,000 feet above Cambodia. But of course there isn't any justice.

    The KR also kept meticulous records, Beth. The photos Vann Nath is holding in the top picture were taken from his file. They took another photo before people were hauled off to Cheung Ek. When you go to Toul Sleng now -- it's a museum -- the walls are lined with these stunned, baffled faces, staring right into the camera, many of them badly damaged, some with their prisoner numbers dangling from safety pins thrust through the skin of the chest. Many of them are children.

    And today, some of the men who did and ordered it done that are fat and brutal and powerful, evicting the poor to build hotels and business towers. Their appalling, spoiled children run down motorcyclists in the streets, driving blind drunk, and are immediately freed. Yrsa, I don't get it, either, how it is that these swine thrive. It fills me with rage.

  6. It makes the blood boil, and brings tears to the eyes. How could we close our eyes to this? I saw"The Killing Fields," and I was almost nauseated at the thought that this was endured. The Holocaust was also allowed to go on. And the killing goes on, in Africa. Human nature can be ravenous for power. To quote Vonnegut, (I think) "and so it goes."

  7. Then there are the disappeared in Argentina. The Generals had those who had the temerity to criticize them dropped out of helicopters into the South Atlantic. It happened so many thousands of times that the sharks learned to expect food when they heard the rotor blades. They began to circle when the engine noise approached. Kissinger went to Buenos Aires and told the butchers in charge that the US government understood their "problem." A second possible fate would be to drop him from fifty yards above the sharks. The movies about this particular time of atrocity are "The Offical Story" and "Cautiva," among others. They both deal with the babies of disappeared women and are great films. Sometimes I think the earth must be an insane asylum for another planet!

  8. Hi, Lil, hi, Annamaria.

    There never seems to be a shortage of monsters, does there? They're always there when they're needed.

    I'm sorry to say that Vann Nath died yesterday. And his murderers aren't feeling well.