Last Known Survivor of S-21 Wants Home for the Elderly

Vann Nath still has trouble talking about his days as a Tuol Sleng prisoner. But if it can help him realize his dream, he’ll do it.

The 56-year-old painter is believed to be the last living member of the group of seven people who survived the Khmer Rouge’s infamous S-21 political prison at Tuol Sleng.

He spoke Wednesday to the Rotary Club of Phnom Penh, giving a brief account of his life. At first he said little of his time at Tuol Sleng, preferring to talk about his goal of building a retirement home for the elderly in his native province of Battambang.

“Family structure has broken down because of war and the Khmer Rouge,” Vann Nath said. “I see old people in the streets. There is lots of help for orphans and AIDS victims, but I want to build a home so old people are not thrown out of society.”

Through a translator, Vann Nath told the approximately 40 people gathered that he is hesitant to talk about his days under the Khmer Rouge regime.

But Vann Nath said he is willing to take money earned from being a “strange kind of celebrity” to build his retirement home.

Vann Nath was taken from the rice fields near Battambang and brought to S-21 in January 1978. Accused of being a US spy, Vann Nath would have been executed if his jailers hadn’t learned of his professional training as a painter. He was kept alive in order to paint portraits of Pol Pot.

Since Vietnamese troops ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, Vann Nath has gained international recognition for his depictions of Khmer Rouge atrocities, some of which are hanging on the walls of the Tuol Sleng museum. He has said he would testify against former Khmer Rouge leaders in a planned tribunal of cadre leaders.

He also said the bones of thousands of Khmer Rouge victims at Choeung Ek, otherwise known as the killing fields, should be ceremonially cremated, with a few kept intact to be used for trial evidence.

Vann Nath said he still doesn’t know why he was arrested. With emotion, he told of being shackled in a room with more than 20 other prisoners with little food and no water. He said he soon gave up hope.

Vann Nath said he first came up with the idea to help the elderly after he was freed.

“I want their last days to be peaceful and hopeful,” he said.

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