PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Easy And Right Aren’t the Same Thing

It’s easy, in the face of atrocities, to want to look the other way.

That’s what went through my mind today as I stared at skull upon skull stacked 18 levels high at the Killing Fields Memorial Site, or as I listened to the audio descriptions of torture as I walked through Tuol Sleng Prison, the Genocide Museum.

It would be just as easy to look away and turn it off and pretend that none of this ever happened. Easier for me. But as a citizen of the world, it is not only imperative that I learn while I am here but that I also share because genocides and torture still happen, and the more we know, the better equipped we are to stand strong in the face of hatred.

For those of you, who, like me before today, only have a tertiary understanding of what happened in Cambodia, this is a short version to bring you up to speed.

During the early 1970s, Cambodia was the focus of the “secret war,” where the U.S. carpet-bombed the country regularly. As a result, when the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, just as Vietnam was falling to the Communist rule, they were greeted with cheers.

However, it was only a matter of hours before it became apparent that their intention was anything but good. People in the cities were given mere minutes to prepare before they were forced to leave their homes go out to rural villages in order to develop an agrarian society.

The objectives of Pol Pot and his henchmen went beyond that, however. It was a determined effort to rid the nation of an educated or elite class. People were killed merely for having glasses or soft hands because it indicated that they were not “tough.”

Entire families were killed because the Khmer Rouge believed that “to stop the weeds, you need to pull it out by the roots.” Even babies were killed because he didn’t want family members left to exact revenge.

When there was a question of whether a person should be killed, the general rule was, “Better to kill an innocent person than let a guilty person go free.” And guilty of what?  Usually, nothing but fabricated charges, in an effort to unnerve society by turning everyone into enemies.

By the time Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge fled Cambodia when the Vietnamese invaded and put a new regime in power, at least 2 million Cambodians had been killed — one-fourth of the population.

The Killing Fields is a powerful and overwhelming place, where you see mounds that contained mass graves of the thousands of people thrown their anonymously after they had their throats slit, their skulls bashed or their limbs hacked off. Even as you walk through today, bones are still being unearthed, as well as scraps of clothing, as a powerful reminder that the dead their never found a true resting place.

The Killing Tree.
The Killing Tree.

And then there’s the Killing Tree. The horror of it, next to a pit where women were thrown after often being raped and then murdered, chilled my soul. When Cambodia was liberated, they figured out what this tree was used for by the bits of skull, blood and hair of the babies and small children that were bashed against it before they were thrown in the pit.

It would be easier to just look away.

The same is true as I wandered through Tuol Sleng. I saw the rooms where people were brutality tortured and beaten, the gallows where they were hung upside down and dropped until they became unconscious and then had their heads stuck in a pot full of excrement to wake them up to do it again and the table where they were water boarded, a grotesque torture where one experiences the horror of drowning,

The audio tour left no detail out, as I listened to these brutal devices used to extract false confessions to imagined crimes, justifying the blind folding of the prisoners who were sent off to be killed at night. … If they survived the torture.

And it would have been just as easy to tune it out.

But I couldn’t. These were real things that happened to real people.

I had lunch with a man, who at age 3 was ripped out of the arms of an uncle who was caring for him, since his parents had been taken away. His uncle was blindfolded, bludgeoned in the back of the head, taken to Tuol Sleng and then the Killing Fields.

I went to the Survivor Talk and heard a woman who, like me, was born in 1964. But while I was enjoying life as a junior high schooler, she was separated from her family, saw her brother being dragged to death for trying to get more food and forced to dig what she thought would be her own mass grave.

They couldn’t look away, so I can’t, either.

In 1979, however, when Pol Pot was removed from power, most of the Western World did. He and his henchmen were acknowledged as the “rightful leaders” of Cambodia, and received support — financial and otherwise — from the U.S., among other countries, simply because they had been displaced by a government supported by Communist Vietnam.

Never mind the genocide. Never mind the horrors inflicted on their people. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” was the official stance of countries that turned a blind eye on these atrocities.

Because it is just as easy to look the other way.

Today, too, it is easy to ignore human rights abuses simply because they don’t mesh with our narrative of the world or to determine that the access to natural resources is more significant than how people are treated by their governments.

We live in a world where we can tune out things we don’t like or things with which we don’t agree. We can live in our own echo chamber. And we can ignore things that make us uncomfortable.

But to do that is to fail to see the world as it is. And if we fail to do that, then we cease to able to be agents of change.

I was just a kid when this was all unfolding in Cambodia, and I was powerless to do anything to change it. But being aware that this kind of systemic brutality is not just relegated to the past but very much a part of our recent history and current reality allows me to be voice for the voiceless in a world that needs to hear what happens when we start seeing those who are different from us as enemies.

The people of Germany contributed to building the Genocide Museum because they are only too aware of what can and does happen when we begin to ignore the dignity of each and every person. And they want to witness to where the power of hate can lead.

Both the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng end their audio tours with a challenge to bear witness to what you’ve seen and share it with the world. This blog is the start of that, and as I signed the guestbook, I made a pledge to tell others and to speak out in the face of atrocities and injustice.

It’s easy, in the face of atrocities, to want to look the other way. But easy and right aren’t the same thing.

2 thoughts on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Easy And Right Aren’t the Same Thing”

  • Mary Ann April 27, 2017 at 11:40 am

    Thank you for this great article. I too was a high schooler and had no idea that this went on. I lived a very sheltered life growing up in North Dakota.

  • Old Gym Rat April 28, 2017 at 1:55 am

    We are all participants be it active or passive.


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