One day during the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime in the mid-1970s, American journalist Sydney Schanberg asked his Cambodian assistant, Dith Pran, a gnawing question.
How would Dith respond to the American diplomat in Phnom Penh who had been publicly criticizing Cambodians for not rising up against the communist insurgents, who were killing innocent countrymen every day? Was it because, as the diplomat insinuated, Cambodians did not value human life as highly as Westerners did?
The question hung in the air for long minutes until Dith found the words to respond.
"It's not true. You have seen for yourself the suffering," he told Schanberg softly. "The only difference, maybe, is that with Cambodians the grief leaves the face quickly, but it goes inside and stays there for a long time."
For slaughter on the scale inflicted by the Khmer Rouge -- an estimated 1.5 million died of starvation, executions, overwork and torture -- the grief could be immobilizing, but not for Dith. He saved Schanberg from death at rebel hands before facing it himself many times during the four years of the Khmer Rouge's bloody reign. When Schanberg won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for his Cambodia reporting at the New York Times, he shared the honor with Dith.
How the scrappy Cambodian managed to survive was incomprehensible even to Dith. Yet he prevailed and with Schanberg's help began life anew in the United States as a staff photographer for the Times. Dith emerged as an eloquent spokesman for the victims of the Cambodian slaughter, a role he filled until his death from pancreatic cancer Sunday at a hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., Schanberg said. He was 65.
"A clear-eyed reporter who lived through horror and survived to tell his story in his own words, for 30 years Dith Pran . . . played a key role in bringing the crimes of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime to world attention, especially in the United States," said Ben Kiernan, founding director of the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University.
Inspiration for film
Dith's struggle to outlast the brutality and be reunited with his family and Schanberg inspired the 1984 Academy Award-winning movie "The Killing Fields." Hailed as a hero, he was honored at the White House and was named a goodwill ambassador to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but he never forgot the Cambodians, living and dead, he had left behind.
He established the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project to educate students about the atrocities. He sought to preserve evidence of the slaughter and bring the perpetrators before an international tribunal as a member of the Cambodia Documentation Commission, a human rights group. And he compiled first-person accounts of the Khmer Rouge's crimes against children in a 1998 book, "Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields."
"I am a Cambodian holocaust survivor," he often declared, "and I have to be a messenger."
One of six children in a middle-class family, he was born Sept. 27, 1942, in Siem Reap, a township near the Angkor temples in northwest Cambodia. He learned French in school and taught himself English.
After high school, he worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Military Assistance Group in Cambodia for five years, until Cambodia severed relations with the U.S. in 1965. As the Vietnam War spilled across the Cambodian border and the Khmer Rouge swept the countryside, he became a guide and translator for foreign journalists. That is how, in 1972, he met Schanberg, a Singapore-based correspondent for the Times, who quickly dominated coverage of the Cambodian civil war. The temperamental journalist and the bright, resourceful Cambodian became fast friends, and by mid-1973 Dith worked exclusively for Schanberg as an official New York Times stringer.
Though not trained as a journalist, Dith instinctively drove for the scoop using whatever means necessary. In one of the biggest stories he and Schanberg covered together, Dith bribed a patrol boat crew to take them to a Mekong River town that an American B-52 bomber had mistakenly targeted, leaving 400 injured or dead. He bribed another crew to speed them back to Phnom Penh so the correspondent could meet his deadline.
Schanberg later wrote that Dith witnessed so much senseless death that he "began to see in journalism a way to reveal his people's plight."
By 1975, the two men were as close as brothers. On April 17, the day the Khmer Rouge stormed the capital of Phnom Penh, Schanberg, Dith, their driver and two other foreign journalists were confronted by a band of heavily armed soldiers. Schanberg believed they would be killed on the spot, a fear bolstered by the raw terror on the face of the usually imperturbable Dith.
They were shoved inside the soldiers' tank -- all except Dith. Schanberg could hear Dith's frantic pleading in Khmer, the Cambodian language, and assumed he was bargaining for his own freedom. Only when the door of the tank opened and Dith tumbled in did Schanberg learn what Dith had been saying. The Cambodian driver told him that the Khmer Rouge had ordered Dith to leave, but Dith begged them to let him stay.
"He knew we had no chance without him," Schanberg later wrote, "so he argued not to be separated from us, offering, in effect, to forfeit his own life on the chance that he might save ours."
After "talking soothingly" with the soldiers for more than two hours, Schanberg said, Dith persuaded them to let everyone go.
Dith Pran, 65; helped reveal 'Killing Fields'
He assisted American journalist Sydney Schanberg in his Cambodia reporting in the 1970s and later became a staff photographer for the New York Times. 'I am a Cambodian holocaust survivor,' Dith often
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