“Nath just left us this morning. A big rain pours when he dies.”
Those words were sent out via text message by a member of Vann Nath’s family yesterday, just moments after the death of the S-21 prison camp survivor and artist coincided with a sudden rain shower in Phnom Penh.
Mr Nath, a beloved figure who will be remembered for the horrors he survived and later bore witness to through his paintings and writings, died at 12:45 pm in the hospital. He was 66 years old.
His son-in-law, Lon Nara, sent the text message to close friends, who had stood vigil by the artist’s hospital bed since he lapsed into a coma on the night of Aug 26.
“We hope that he passed away with peace and justice, and all his suffering in mind and body has gone now,” Mr Nara said.
Dr Tan Sokun said doctors tried everything to save Mr Nath, but he arrived at La Sante Hemodialysis Center in an almost hopeless state after a heart attack last week.
“We explained [the situation] to the family members to prepare their minds since the first day,” Dr Sokun said.
Mr Nath had long suffered from kidney disease, and he required regular dialysis, Dr Sokun said. On arrival at the hospital, the artist’s heart was not working, and his lungs were drowned in excess fluid, he added.
Mr Nath was one of a handful of people to survive Tuol Sleng prison, escaping death because the Khmer Rouge enlisted him to paint portraits of Pol Pot. After the regime fell in 1979 and the prison was converted into a museum, Mr Nath returned to paint the scenes of torture he had witnessed as an inmate.
A number of those paintings are now displayed at the museum.
During an interview in 2008, he reflected on how it felt to keep retelling the story of his life and the inmates he outlived. Around 14,000 men, women and children were tortured at Tuol Sleng then sent for execution on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
“At first it hurt dreadfully when I was painting scenes of Tuol Sleng that I had seen and lived through,” Mr Nath said at the time.
“But the more I painted, the more I could get rid of my pain and my thoughts. And later I discovered that it helped me deal with my memories so that I could remember those experiences clearly and tell people about them in my paintings.”
Mr Nath also wrote a memoir and testified at the Khmer Rouge tribunal during the 2009 trial of his former Khmer Rouge jailer and tormenter, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch.
“This is what I thought since I was detained at S-21: I determined that if one day I survived and had freedom and I could leave that location, I would compile the events to reflect on what happened so that the younger generation would know of our suffering,” he told the court.
He said he also hoped to help clear the names of the 35 others who were transferred to S-21 along with him and murdered there, so that history would know that they “never committed anything wrong.”
The court sentenced Duch to 35 years in prison, of which around 18 years remain to be served.
Mr Nara said his father-in-law seemed renewed and happier after the sentencing of Duch.
“It is…justice for him because he saw the court convict Duch,” Mr Nara said.
Yet filmmaker Rithy Panh, who worked with Mr Nath on an award-winning documentary film set in Tuol Sleng prison, said he regretted his friend did not survive to see the appeal verdict in the Duch case, which was expected to be announced in June but has been delayed until later this year.
Before the Duch trial, some former Khmer Rouge leaders denied S-21’s horrors.
“Only [Mr Nath] stood up and said that he was at S-21 and knows what happened,” Mr Panh said. “We owe him a lot for his work on genocide.”
Mr Nath was not only a great witness to history, but also a truly good and sincere man, he added.
“There is much more sadness for Vann Nath the man, not only the witness,” he said.
Mr Nath’s body was brought home yesterday and placed in his studio for a Buddhist ceremony, his wife Kith Eng and children wrote in an e-mail sent to friends.
In addition to Ms Eng, Mr Nath is survived by two daughters and a son. Two other children died during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Chum Mey, who is now one of the last remaining survivors of S-21, said that it would be hard to continue his advocacy work at the tribunal without Mr Nath by his side.
“It seems like we have lost all the valuable documents,” Mr Mey said.
The French and Japanese Embassies, who co-chair a group of donors involved in the Khmer Rouge tribunal, expressed condolences in a statement.
We “pay tribute to this tireless freedom fighter who, throughout his paintings and his writings, handed down the memory of these tragic years for the kingdom to the new generations,” the statement said.
Jim Mizerski, a photographer and friend of Mr Nath, said simply that his life “made a difference.”
Of the rainfall that came with Vann Nath’s death, he said: “It’s like Cambodia cried when Nath died.”