Frontline World

Cambodia - Pol Pot's Shadow, October, 2002

Synopsis of "Pol Pot's Shadow"

In Search of Justice

Historical Analysis: The U.S. and Cambodia

The Rapper, the Dancer, and the Storyteller

Learn more about Cambodia

Genocide, War Crimes, Politics




Sophiline Shapiro - The Dancer
Photo of Shapiro Sophiline Cheam Shapiro was among the first generation of classically-trained dancers to graduate from Phnom Penh's School of Fine Arts after the almost unimaginable destruction of the Khmer Rouge years, when as many as 90 percent of Cambodia's dancers were killed. Sophiline, a adolescent survivor, devoted herself to mastering the intricate, complex movements that characterize classical Cambodian dance. She became a teacher to help keep the art alive and toured worldwide with the Classical Dance Company of Cambodia. In 1991, she married an American, John Shapiro, and moved to Los Angeles. In 2000, she traveled to Phnom Penh to premiere Samritechak,her retelling of Othello in the form of classical Cambodian dance. Sophiline and her husband recently launched the Khmer Arts Academy to teach a new generation of Cambodian-Americans about traditional Cambodian art and culture.

Excerpts from Sophiline Cheam Shapiro's essay, "Songs My Enemies Taught Me" in Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields.
Excerpted from Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors, compiled by Dith Pran, edited by Kim DePaul. Copyright 1997 by Yale University. Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press.

One of the first children's songs I remember learning under the Khmer Rouge was called "Angka Dar Qotdam" (The Great Angka).

We children love Angka limitlessly.
Because of you we have better lives and live quite happily.
Before the revolution, children were poor and lived like animals,
We were cold and suffered,
But the enemy didn't care about us.
Only skin covered our bones, so thin we were worried
All night we slept on the ground,
We begged and looked for food in trash cans during the day.
Now Angka brings us good health, strength.
And now we live in the commune.
The light of revolution, equality and freedom shines gloriously.
Oh, Angka, we deeply love you.
We resolve to follow your red way ...

As a nine-year-old, I believed this was the truth. There was going to be a future, if not democratic (I don't think I knew the meaning of that word) then one of tremendous prosperity. But our labors continued all day, every day. We worked from sunrise until sunset, breaking only to eat. Our two daily meals consisted mostly of one watery cup of rice porridge.

... We are very happy to be living in the countryside.
We are very proud and happy.
We work hard to produce a lot more rice than before,
To improve the economy of New Kampuchea.
It is Kampuchea, independent, neutral, peaceful, advanced, democratic, glorious.
Men and women live in happiness.

We were productive, but where was the rice going? There was no democracy. There was no glory. There was no laughter. There was no happiness. By 1977, there was no more singing, and there was certainly no peace.

I sometimes wonder if images of healthy rice paddies and the wonderful new Kampuchea were whirling through the mind of my brother, Pavonn, when, dizzy from dysentery, far away from his family with a work brigade, he fainted at the top of a monastery stairwell and broke his neck. I lost my father, two brothers, my grandmother, and many cousins and uncles. I am no different from most of my generation: I know of almost no family that survived without losses. It was a time of the gravest betrayals. Lyrics that promised us the riches of heaven were written by the engineers of our own public hell.

I rarely hear the songs of the Khmer Rouge. I wonder why that is. I know all too well the horror their melodies recall, but I also know that these songs played as important a part in my life as any. They reflect an experience unique to my generation of Cambodians, no matter to what corner of the world fate has brought them. The Khmer Rouge hoped to obliterate our history, and in doing so, their songs have forged a significant place in it. It is for this reason that I will never forget the songs my enemies taught me.

NEXT - Read an Interview with Sophiline Cheam Shapiro

GO TO - Prach Ly - The RapperChanrithy Him - The Storyteller

Photos courtesy of Michael Burr and James Wasserman