In one of modern history's worst genocides, nearly 2 million people died in Cambodia during four years of murder, massive dislocation, forced labor and brutal torture. The terror began on April 17, 1975, when Khmer Rouge soldiers riding tanks and armored personnel carriers stormed the capital, Phnom Penh. Photojournalist Dith Pran was there — he would become the first to call the country's massacre sites the "killing fields." According to friend and co-worker Sydney Schanberg, Dith not only helped document the gruesome period, but he also experienced himself the grief and terror that killed nearly a quarter of Cambodia's people.
In 1972, New York Times correspondent Schanberg first arrived in Phnom Penh, where he met 30-year-old Dith — an interpreter and assistant to Western journalists. Schanberg says Dith wasn't a trained reporter, and that before the war he had worked primarily with tourists in his home town of Siem Reap, site of the famed Angkor Wat temple complex. "But his skills were really magnificent," Schanberg says. "Unlike aggressive Western reporters, he knew how to find things out in a quiet, Cambodian manner. ... He was just gifted at finding things out."
At the time, Schanberg says, reporters and their editors gave little official credit to the so-called "fixers," or local reporters who helped foreign correspondents. Schanberg calls this fact a "failure in journalism." "They really were equals," he says. "I could never have done my work without Pran."
Schanberg recalls the chaotic, iconic day that the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh. He says he, Dith, a driver and several other reporters were coming out of a hospital when troops loyal to Pol Pot drove up in an armored vehicle. They put guns to everyone's heads. "Pran told us quickly, 'Do everything they say,' " Schanberg says. "They were really dead behind the eyes. I don't think our lives mattered very much to them."
Schanberg says that after the Khmer Rouge soldiers loaded the Americans into the armored vehicle, they ordered Dith to leave. They told him they only wanted the "big people." But Schanberg says Dith forced his way back into the vehicle. "We then drove ... about 20-25 minutes," Schanberg says. "In the vehicle itself, he just kept talking and telling these people that we were not their enemies, and that we were just there to report to the world on their victory ... telling them we were French, not Americans. ... He wasn't afraid. I mean if he was, he wasn't showing it."
Schanberg says the personnel carriers stopped at the Mekong, a slow-moving brown river that snakes through the capital. "They opened the back door," he says. "Outside the door were two men with guns on their hips, ready to shoot. We figured they were going to kill us and roll us into the river."
But Schanberg says Dith jumped out and immediately ran to who he thought was the leader, "and began to say the same things to him. ... They kept telling him at times to be quiet. And he wouldn't. And we were just there with our hands behind our heads, the guns pointed at us."
Finally, Schanberg says, the guns were lowered. Dith, he says, had pulled a bluff. He told the soldiers that radio broadcasts that morning had said that foreign reporters were ordered to stay and cover the Khmer Rouge's victory. It's a bluff that probably saved their lives, Schanberg says.
Of their last conversation — just before a nail-biting scene played out in the Killing Fields, the movie about the pair that won an Academy Award in 1984 — Schanberg says it's difficult to be exact. "I don't remember the details, because we were both in tears."
Dith and Schanberg had taken refuge in the French Embassy with most of the city's Westerners. It wasn't much of a refuge, Schanberg says, and jumpy Khmer Rouge soldiers with guns ordered all the Cambodians out. Schanberg and several other reporters frantically tried to fake a French passport for Dith. But the efforts were dashed, Schanberg says, because French officials in charge were adamant that if they didn't give up the efforts, the soldiers outside would have a reason to start killing people.
It was time for Dith to leave the embassy and share the fate of his people. "I had some money that I'd asked the Times to send ... escape money," Schanberg says. "I gave him a bunch of money, and said maybe you'll need to bribe your way out. My wishful hope was that he'd be able to do that quickly because of how good he was at things like that. ... Then he just went off ... up Route 5 toward where he used to live."
Recalling that moment, Schanberg says: "I went somewhere; I was just sobbing."
More than 50 of Dith's relatives were killed in four years of countless atrocities. Dith himself was near death at one point.
"He had a smile that could light up a city block," Schanberg says. "He was a special person, and Buddhism was a big part of that. ... He believed in the tenet that you do good things and you will be rewarded. ... Pran did many, many of them for people who were at risk during the war."
Schanberg says Dith was determined most of all — "as driven as I was," Schanberg says — to tell the story of the Khmer Rouge regime. Schanberg remembers one time, when there was an accidental bombing north of Phnom Penh, the "worst in the entire Vietnam War." Nearly 170 people were killed when planes dropped bombs on the wrong people, he says. Dith figured out a way to get the Navy to smuggle them up the river to the bombing site. Schanberg says he and Dith were captured — but not before seeing firsthand the destruction and funeral pyres. "We were put under house arrest, but we got the story."
"That's always the end of the story with Pran," Schanberg says. "He got it done. ... His legacy is really a magnificent one. At the very least, he was my equal at all times — and often my better. That's what he was. He wasn't just an assistant. He wasn't just someone's guide or interpreter. So many times in the past, not so much now ... but so many times in the past, people like Pran didn't get equal credit, and didn't get much credit at all. And we never knew their names back here in the United States. ... But Pran's tale is different."
Schanberg says Dith had a mission from the moment he first met him. "His mission," Schanberg says, "was to tell the world what was happening to his people."
Dith survived the Cambodian genocide and moved to the United States, where he maintained close ties to his co-worker and friend, Schanberg — who accepted in 1976 a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting. Dith, 65, died Sunday morning, succumbing to pancreatic cancer at a New Jersey Hospital.