S-21 atrocities (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

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Our time in Phnom Penh was a mixed bag of emotions. Excitement to be meeting up with our friends Miss Marsh and Miss Hookings (or Dave as we now call her, but that’s another story), happiness at being able to have a fun Christmas with friends, but overwhelming sadness and disbelief at the atrocities that occurred in Cambodia within my lifetime.

Anyone who knows me well will know that history isn’t my strong point. In fact I’m pretty useless when it comes to British history, let alone historic events that have happened in other countries. In some ways I can be forgiven for my lack of knowledge on what happened in Cambodia during the time of the Khmer Rouge Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) as firstly it happened between 1975 and 1979 when I was a small infant and secondly because of a press curfew, much of the outside world had little or no idea what was actually happening in the country during this ugly time.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

Miss Marsh and I listen with disbelief as we hear about the horrific events that took place in S-21

My hubby has written a short piece on the horrific events that took place in S-21 (Tuol Sleng), one of the many prisons that were used to torture innocent people before they were killed in inhumane ways. If you are unaware of what took place during the four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge I urge you to read this (click here).

In short the Khmer Rouge, an extreme communist movement wanted to create an agrarian society where family wealth and status become irrelevant. Their warped vision involved torturing and killing the majority of the educated population. Families were split up and millions of innocent people killed.  Although nobody knows the full extent of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous activity, it’s thought that over 3 million people, almost half the Cambodian population were killed during Pol Pot’s reign.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

'The boy' walks through the rooms where the prisoners were tortured on a daily basis

The Khmer Rouge did not want the outside world to know what was happening within so the press were banned from the country. Thirteen reporters from around the world were caught in Cambodia. They were killed. One Australian reporter was tortured, set alight and consequently burnt to death.

Almost everyone in Cambodia has been affected in some way. Our guide at S-21, a quietly spoken lady, was split up from her family shortly after Pol Pot came into power. Her parents and three siblings were killed and she, aged fourteen, was forced to work in the fields in atrocious conditions. She was beaten and tortured and has the scars on her legs, a bad back and limp as a daily reminder of those terrible times.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

Photographs of the innocent people who were held at S-21 before being taken to the Killing Fields

She described how once the families had been split into age and gender groups, children under the age of five were often killed as they were deemed a hindrance.  It’s impossible to imagine what the parents of these children must have gone through.  Being a mother of a sixteen month old I found it particularly disturbing to hear how the Khmer Rouge killed the babies.  Often they were held by the legs and hit violently against a tree until their skulls cracked. It was hard to hold back our emotions whilst we heard the terrifying ordeal that these innocent people endured and it seemed impossible that this took place just over thirty years ago.

It’s one piece of history that I will never ever forget.

backpacking with a baby in SE Asia

A young boy has his identification number pinned through his neck

Top tip of the day:
Try and coincide any museum visits with your baby’s naptime. We didn’t, and after thirty minutes of sitting patiently in his buggy he naturally wanted to get out and run around. We spent almost three hours at S-21 and so took it in turns to play outside with him. A sleeping baby would have been a lot easier in these circumstances.

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