Dith Pran, 'Killing Fields' Journalist, Dies at 65

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Dith Pran, the Cambodian-born journalist who helped bring to light the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, died over the weekend of pancreatic cancer. He was 65 years old. His experiences inspired the movie The Killing Fields.


The man who coined the term the killing fields has died. His name was Dith Pran. He was a Cambodia-born journalist and he helped bring to light the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, a genocide, one of the worst in recorded history. He died over the weekend of pancreatic cancer.

NPR's Barbara Bradley-Hagerty has this report.

BARBARA BRADLEY-HAGERTY: In 1972, violence from the Vietnam War was spilling into Cambodia. And the New York Times sent reporter Sydney Schanberg into Phnom Penh to cover the story. There he met Dith Pran, an interpreter who Schanberg quickly realized was a dogged reporter with flawless instincts.

Mr. SYDNEY SCHANBERG (New York Times): His mission became trying to tell the rest of the world what was happening to his people. And my mission was essentially the same, and we quickly realized that.

BRADLEY-HAGERTY: The two men, he says, became more than colleagues.

Mr. SCHANBERG: We became brothers. We thought the same way, and at the end he wanted to stay and tell about the ending of this story.

BRADLEY-HAGERTY: In 1975, the United States evacuated its embassy in Cambodia. Dith's family left the country, but Dith refused to go. Days later the communist revolutionary group the Khmer Rouge took over the capital. Schanberg says he cried as he watched his friend walk out of the city.

Mr. SCHANBERG: He went off with a group of Cambodians up the road into what the Khmer Rouge were calling their glorious agrarian revolution.

BRADLEY-HAGERTY: That revolution is believed to have left as many as two million Cambodians dead. For the next four and a half years, Dith worked in rice paddies, often eating only a mouthful of rice or a stolen tomato in a day. But he made his way across the country, which he called the killing fields, to describe the corpses he saw during his escape.

In 1979, Dith arrived in a refugee camp in Thailand. When he got the message, Schanberg took the first flight to Southeast Asia and picked up his friend.

Mr. SCHANBERG: He was wobbly on his legs. His health was poor. And we were walking around this refugee camp. He said, you know, we've got to go toward the border and do these stories. We've got to get back and there are so many stories at the border to write. And that's what he wanted to do.

BRADLEY-HAGERTY: But Schanberg prevailed and brought Dith back to the United States. The movie that told Dith's story won three Oscars. He became a U.S. citizen, and the Times hired him as a photographer. In 1987, Dith told NPR that he was genuinely happy now because he had suffered so much in the past. But he still had nightmares.

Mr. DITH PRAN (Photojournalist): It seems like I'm still there, not in the United States. Like I still work in the rice fields. I am still in the forced labor camp.

BRADLEY-HAGERTY: Still, Schanberg says, Dith's story and his generosity made him an instant hero.

Mr. SCHANBERG: I mean, he was like the Pied Piper. The young Asian reporters here in the United States would follow him around. They wanted to be with him. They wanted to talk to him. And he had time for them. He had time for - anybody who was interested in what he was interested in, he had time for.

BRADLEY-HAGERTY: Three months ago, Dith was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When Schanberg visited his friend on Saturday night, he suspected he would never see him again. Schanberg says the two men did not say goodbye to each other, but spoke of a friendship that would somehow transcend death.

Mr. SCHANBERG: You know, we laughed because we know others would think it was silly, but he said I'll send you my dreams. And I said I'll you mine.

BRADLEY-HAGERTY: Dith Pran leaves behind his family, except for his three brothers killed by the Khmer Rouge. He was 65 years old.

Barbara Bradley-Hagerty, NPR News.

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