The “Audacity of Hope” in Cambodia

Today the Cambodian genocide trial began for the most infamous Cambodian prison camp leader, Kaing Guek Eav ‑ better known as Comrade Duch who ran the S-21 camp also known as  Tuol Sleng. It was at that camp where he is accused of executing 12,380 people in the “killing fields” at Choeng Ek. (Great blog entry here…) It is uncertain exactly how many people perished in this atrocity, but estimates are that anywhere from 12 to 20 thousand people were killed in this camp.

Photo 1. at Choeng Ek also Known as the “Killing Fields”

thailand-sm-200305-0311_2461Source: Chris Montaño

It is reported that there were only 7 survivors of the horrible camp. Among them was a painter named Vann Nath. He is an artist who survived because “Duch” liked his paintings of Pol Pot. After the ordeal, Vann Nath painted his experience and his works are the pictorial testimony of the crimes committed in that dark place. They now hang on the walls of the former prison and are haunting in their depiction of the atrocities committed there.

When I visited the prison, I was riveted by the paintings and their stark, realistic renderings of the things once done where I now stood. As I toured the prison, I could see the terrible conditions ( See Photos 2. and 3.) but it was the paintings that I could not shake from my mind. For me the paintings were like taking an emotional tour of the prison and overwhelming to say the least.

Photos 2. A Torture Table and Painting Depicting its Usethailand-sm-200305-0301_236Source: Chris Montaño

Photo 3. The Stark Prison

thailand-sm-200305-0254_233Source: Chris Montaño

After we toured the prison itself we were taken by minibus to the killing fields where many of the executions were carried out.  The arrival at the killing fields is quite prosaic with a lovely Buddhist temple set amidst some trees. However, as you get closer to the temple you are greeted with a specter that was stunning- there are several floors of the temple encased in glass with skulls neatly situated on platforms of wood. (See Photo 4.) The contrast between the peaceful, countryside place of spiritual reflection is scarred with a reminder of the darkest behavior of humankind and the two juxtaposed against one another created for me a very strong emotional reaction.

Photo 4. The Raw Reality

thailand-sm-200305-0315_250Source: Chris Montaño

Cambodians have left the fields in relatively rustic conditions and as you walk around you can see shards of human bones and clothes. Apparently, they used metal rods to break the necks of prisoners as they deemed bullets to valuable to waste in executions. Of course what slim possessions the executed had left at that point were taken. The tour was a very emotional day for me and my friends and even our Cambodian tour guide broke down into tears as he remembered family members that perished there.

As I reflected upon our day trip to hell (fyi- there is no sarcasm in this choice of words), I thought, “How does a man like Vann Nath go on after this? Where does he find his hope to face the rest of his life? In fact, how does he think about hope at this time?”

I saw real images that day that I wished I never saw. Yet I found that it was the paintings of Vann Nath that came to my mind and I could not avoid. Over dinner, I spoke with a friend that lived in Phnom Pehn about the day and related my thoughts about Vann Nath’s paintings. She informed me that he was local and if I wanted she could inquire into a piece of his work for me to purchase.

I thought about it and asked her to commission a work from Vann Nath. I gave her a single word– hope. “Ask him to paint for me, ‘Hope.'”

We left the next day and later I found out that Vann Nath was willing to take the job. Once complete, my friend rolled up the oil painting and stuck it into a poster tube and sent it along with a friend of hers that traveled to the U.S. The painting was then mailed to me and my family. (See Photo 5.)

Photo 5. Hope by Vann Nath


Source: Chris Montaño

Mr Vann Nath has given my family a great gift in in this work. It hangs on our living room wall and I am reminded of that day I went to that horrible dungeon. But I am also reminded that even amidst the darkest cell of despair, there lies the seeds of hope within. I admire Vann Nath for emerging from that place – almost certainly wounded, yet not distorted or warped by its darkness. He is a hero of mine and I will always remember him for his courage, not only to survive, but to emerge as a an eloquent voice to never forget and never lose hope in dark circumstances.


1 thought on “The “Audacity of Hope” in Cambodia

  1. Pingback: The Audacity of Hope Part II «

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