Mr. Sen turned off the TV and went to the outdoor balcony, taking a view of the orange glow of the setting sun. That’s when a floodgate of his memory’s damn broke wide open. Now in his mid-seventies, he was born to a poor farming family in Battenbang, hundred kilometers away from this capital city. Growing up, he would help in family’s farming activities, while self-teaching how to paint human portraits. Later, his expertise in the area would allow him to land a job in the advertising sector, especially in creating colorful billboards for electronics and entertainment industries.
Soon Mr. Sen began to remember those four years when the country was taken over by the regime of Khmer Rouge, led by its French-educated ruthless dictator Pol Pot. In order to impart his vision of dystopian socialism, the dictator ordered to imprison society’s intellectuals including political opponents, authors, and artists. Once arrested, they were brutally tortured in secret chambers in coercing false confessions. Later they were murdered in various killing fields spread throughout the countryside.
Mr. Sen, then an ordinary commercial artist, ended up in the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, hidden inside a populated neighborhood. Initially tortured mercilessly, his captors soon learned about his painting skills. They kept him alive to create the propaganda pictures of the dictator, his henchmen, and party’s ideological slogans. While engaged in painting, he also witnessed various inhumane tortures on both men and women, daily taking place inside rooms after rooms accompanied with victims’ animalistic screams. At the end, the country was liberated by the neighboring Vietnamese army. Mr. Sen was among a handful of fortunate survivors of this torture site. Later he painted various torture scenes based on his memory, while alerting the international community. These paintings would serve as the material evidences in the “crime against humanity” trials of surviving leaders of the regime before the international court.
In recent years, the American interrogators in the Guantanamo Bay prison sites applied the torturous waterboarding technique on the captured suspected detainees pertinent to the 9/11- event, as if right out of one of his paintings. But Mr. Sen couldn’t remember whether he ever witnessed a prisoner was murdered by his torturer, while holding a knee on the neck for a full ten minutes.