In June 2006, feeling under pressure to earn money for his unborn child, Vannak Prum left his pregnant wife to work on a farm near the Thai border. With little money coming in, he jumped at a new job opportunity in a Thai fish-processing factory, but after days of traveling he was instead forced onto a Thai fishing vessel. Beatings were common, as were 20-hour working days, and the promised monthly salary of 4500 Baht ($140). Elder workers were forced to take drugs to enable them to stand the hard work. "At the beginning I felt bad, because I was worried about my family. But when I saw other workers committing suicide I decided to rather focus on work," says Vannak Prum.
For three years, he experienced mistreatment, hunger and solitude. But with the help of a Cambodian captain on the boat, Vannak Prum and another Cambodian jumped ship near Sarawak, Malaysia and swam 20 minutes to shore. His freedom did not last long, however, as he was soon picked up by another broker. "He looked like a police man and told me that I have to earn money to return to Cambodia," remembers Vannak Prum.
Four months later, the situation escalated. When two drunken workers attacked each other with machetes, Vannak and his Cambodian colleague intervened. Vannak Prum received a vicious stroke to the neck, and his friend a serious head injury. To avoid problems the plantation owner dropped them along a deserted road at night.
Although the men found their way to a hospital were they recovered from their injuries, a seven-month prison term was handed down under Malaysia's dracoian illegal entry laws.
Finally, in May 2010, Licadho freed Vannak Prum and brought him home. In all those years, his family had received no news from him, his wife having to work on rice fields for $2.50 a day. Far from the long lost embrace of a loving family, mistrust and scepticism were all that greeted Vannak Prum when he returned to his village in Pursat.
"My wife and my parents in law thought I married another woman in Thailand. They did not believe my story until someone from Licadho confirmed it", he remembers.
Vannak Prum is yet to overcome what happened to him in Thailand and Malaysia. Nightmares and insomnia are regular visiors in the wee hours, as is a fear of leaving his family alone. "Over all those years I tried to imagine what my daughter is like," he remembers. "The picture of my wife and my newborn was always in my mind. I was so excited when I saw my daughter [for the first time] and I never want to leave them again."
His wooden home has become his de facto studio, with the therapeutic outlet of painting playing a key role in his recovery. Painting for a living is his dream, but for now Vannak Prum remains plagued by self-doubt. "I don't dare to sell my pictures on the market, because I don't have proper tools and supplies to paint. Other artists can deliver high quality, but I never got trained at all," he says.
Vannak Prum's pictures have helped to identify his exploiters, even if they faced no consequences, and Licadho continued to support his work. For now, though, this unfortunate man with natural talent continues to craft images depicting the violent truth of life on Southeast Asia's margins.
"It doesn't matter whether I draw landscapes, portraits or my history," says Vannak Prum, "Afterwards I feel relieved and free."