“I was gone almost five years,” Prum Vannak Anan says, staring down at his hands and aimlessly twisting a piece of red string around his slender wrist. A scorpion tattoo, with his name written in Khmer alongside it, runs up the length of his arm. “All I wanted was to find work,” he says, glancing up. “But that is not what happened. What happened was not something I ever thought.”
A victim of human trafficking who spent years enslaved on a Thai fishing boat, Mr. Vannak Anan displays almost no emotion as he describes some of the atrocities he witnessed and experienced during his years in captivity – beatings, beheadings, near starvation, sleep deprivation and the uncertainty of survival – without any sign of anger or sadness. He shows his scars with little more than a nonchalant shake of his head.
Mr. Vannak Anan, who is now 34, could not have guessed that when he left his home in Pursat province in 2006 in search of a means of supporting his wife, who was seven months pregnant at the time, that he would end up being held on a Thai fishing boat in the middle of the South China Sea. Nor would he have guessed that he would escape, only to be forced to work on a palm oil plantation in Malaysia, and then held for months in various island prisons.
But perhaps the most unbelievable part of his story is that he became an internationally recognized artist who uses his paintings to raise awareness of human rights issues, particularly as it pertains to human trafficking.
“Other people, they keep their stories inside. But me, I think I need to tell people my stories so that they will take caution,” Mr. Vannak Anan says. “I’m not anyone’s father to give advice, but I want people to be aware that if they step their feet outside the country, this could happen to them.”
Mr. Vannak Anan is one of thousands of men who are forcibly sent from Cambodia to work on Thai fishing boats every year. In 2011, 149 Cambodian men either escaped or were rescued from Thai fishing boats, according to the 2012 U.N. Inter-Agency on Human Trafficking Report.
Mr. Vannak Anan began recreating scenes from his years in captivity shortly after returning to Cambodia in 2010. Unwelcome at home and suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, he spent some time in Phnom Penh, working with rights group Licadho, trying to help heal his emotional scars.
“My wife, she did not accept me at first. She accused me of running off with another love and of not sending home money the whole time I was gone,” he says. “She didn’t accept my story.”
Unable to express himself with words, Mr. Vannak Anan picked up a pen and started drawing his experiences. Most were small, approximately 11×16 inches, but they were detailed and they were good. Many depicted violent and traumatic events from his time on the boat and on the plantation, including abuse, death and despair.
He says that people became curious about the recreated scenes, and that those who had previously rejected his story finally began to believe it. “That’s when I realized my paintings were a way to tell my story,” he says. “No one would not listen to my words, but they would look at my paintings and finally understand my story.”
Manfred Hornung, a legal adviser to Licadho at the time, who has spent years working to help repatriate human trafficking victims, said that looking at Mr. Vannak Anan’s paintings was the first time he really “got it.”
“You can read all the reports on [human trafficking], but nothing compares to seeing the images,” he says. “When I saw those drawings, I truly understood for the first time what those men experienced.”
So far, Mr. Vannak Anan has created a series of 58 paintings for Licadho, telling the full story of his time in captivity. He has also done a shorter version of his story for Radio Free Asia in a series of 12 paintings, as well as a number of private orders for various individuals and non-profit organizations. Last year, 30 of Mr. Vannak Anan’s paintings were put on display by World Vision Cambodia at an anti-trafficking exhibit in Singapore. Most recently, he was one of 10 honorees to receive the U.S. State Department’s “Heroes Working to End Modern-Day Slavery” award, in recognition of his art and activism.
Mr. Vannak Anan says that having to relive his captivity each time he picks up his brush is not difficult. “The images are always there. I can remember all the scenes and so no, it is not painful for me. It’s my pleasure, actually,” he says.
If he had the resources, Mr. Vannak Anan says he would create large signs or billboards of his painted scenes to place on major roads and in other public places.
“Even if they can’t read, they can look [at my paintings] and understand what I am telling them,” he says.
Mr. Vannak Anan says he believes his art is not only a good way to spread his message, but also a way to appeal to the government and other local authorities to arrest the middlemen involved in the human trafficking trade, and not the victims themselves.
“I really just want to tell people to be cautious and to make sure they have the right permissions and information before they try to work abroad,” he says, adding that it does not matter if people judge his paintings as good or bad. “All that matters is that my message spreads to them.”
Looking toward the future, Mr. Vannak Anan says he is not sure what in store for him.
“I hope to continue painting, but sometimes I think I must go back to Battambang [where his ordeal began] to earn money,” he says. “I want to keep painting but I don’t have the resources. And I don’t have the education to find good work.”
This lack of work is often one of the biggest struggles for repatriated human trafficking victims, Mr. Hornung said. He hopes that Mr. Vannak Anan’s art can be used as a means of supporting himself and his family.
“Mr. Vannak has the ability to transmit the information [about human trafficking] in a painting and to share his story in a telling and poetic way,” he said. “I hope he can use that talent, along with the current momentum of being in the limelight, to promote his art and better his life.”
Mr. Vannak Anan, who has never had any formal training, says he would be interested in a career in the arts, but still needs more time to feel comfortable as a professional.
“I never took one class,” he says, turning to face the mural on the wall behind him. “But I enjoy art. Painting is something I was born to do.”