Genocide up close: Visitors to Northampton High class put faces on statistics


Staff Writer

Published: 05-25-2023 5:35 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When Roeun Chea was growing up in Cambodia in the 1970s, he was taken away from his mother and placed in a concentration camp, forced to do hard labor and given very little to eat or drink. He had to sleep on the floor in a crowded room and everyone was forced to work even if they fell ill.

At nighttime, he recalls, soldiers would kill those who they felt were not working hard enough.

When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, the soldiers abandoned the camp and Chea saw an opportunity to escape. He trekked for a month with other refugees through the thick Cambodian jungle, with many dying through sickness or starvation on their way to the border with Thailand.

“Only about 25% made it through,” recalled Chea, who now lives in Florence. “And even though the [refugee] camp was better than the labor camp, I still didn’t have enough food to eat.”

Chea was one of four speakers at a panel event last Thursday at Northampton High School, titled “Never Again Is Now,” put together by Kate Todhunter, a social studies teacher at NHS who has taught an elective Genocide Studies class for junior and senior students for the past 20 years.

Genocide, she explains, is often thought of as a crime of scale where millions are slaughtered, becoming nameless statistics. In truth, she said, genocide is an intimate and personal crime as it is an assault against one’s own identity.

“We begin with the concept of genocide, what are the stages of genocide and how genocide follows a general pattern and doesn’t just happen out of the blue,” Todhunter said. “We incorporate a lot of current events and try to recognize ongoing genocides today.”

Todhunter said she organized the panel in an attempt to turn the statistics of genocide into the human beings who survived them, by sharing their stories and listening to them to raise awareness and heal divisions in these societies.

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The participants at the panel have been guest speakers in Todhunter’s class, with some of them introduced to Todhunter through connections with her students. Chea, for example, spoke to the class after his daughter, Jasmine, took Todhunter’s class when she was a student at NHS.

“I teach a lot of different courses, but this is the one that is closest to my heart,” Todhunter said. “It’s the one where the stories I share with my students are so essential and important for them to understand.”

While the Holocaust is the most well-known example of genocide, the panel featured four members who had ties to other genocides that have occurred during the 20th century: Chea, who survived the genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia during the 1970s; Arlene Avakian, a UMass professor whose parents survived the Armenian genocide in Turkey; Omar Ndizeye, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide of 1994; and Carl Wilkens, an American who lived in Rwanda during the genocide and who now works as a peace activist.

“Genocide starts with seeing others as different, and there is also an element of dehumanization,” said Ndizeye, who participated in the event remotely via Zoom. “But genocide itself is all about power.”

Ndizeye was 10 years old during the Rwandan genocide, when the majority ethnic Hutu population carried out mass killings of the ethnic Tutsi population. He survived a massacre that took place at the Nyamata Catholic Church in Rwanda, where thousands of people lost their lives to Hutu forces.

Ndizeye said that by telling the stories of what happened during the genocide, it can help bring reconciliation and humanization and prevent further violence.

“Telling the stories is about sharing power,” he said. “It’s about being vulnerable, it’s about accepting errors. It’s about engaging others, it’s about healing.”

For Wilkins, the genocide that occurred in Rwanda left him wrestling with how people can go from normal, everyday people to murderers, and how they can ever be forgiven for the atrocities committed during the genocide. He described visiting the country in later years and meeting a woman who had a neighbor who would come by and help plant vegetables, but he had also been responsible for the death of her husband and son during the genocide.

“He just seemed overly simplistic, and everything about him I just didn’t like about the guy. I don’t know if I expected him to stand there with this posture of remorse or something,” Wilkins said. “But I realized when I started journaling that it wasn’t his posture. The problem was mine. I was the one stuck in 1994.”

Avakian grew up in the United States in the 1950s not knowing much about the life of her parents before immigrating to their new country. It wasn’t until she was 14 that she learned from her grandmother that they were caught up in the Armenian genocide in the former Ottoman Empire, where more than a million ethnic Armenians were forcibly deported and killed during death marches through the desert. The Turkish government to this day denies that the events in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire constitute genocide.

“When I first heard this story in the 1950s, I didn’t want to hear it,” Avakian said. I wanted to run. I wanted to get as far away from this story as I possibly could. I was trying as hard as I could to become an American, whatever that meant to me at the time.”

But learning about her family’s history later inspired Avakian to become an activist for social justice, supporting rights for African Americans and women throughout her career. Later in life, she was eventually contacted by activists in Turkey who had heard about her work, and she has visited the country nine times to help push for the Turkish government to recognize the genocide.

“My politics basically come from knowledge of this genocide,” she said. “What we need to do is get over nationalism, which is limited and narrows our worldview, and be in solidarity with other people who have experienced genocide or other horrible oppression.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at