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Cambodian Photojournalist Dith Pran Dies at 65

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Cambodian Photojournalist Dith Pran Dies at 65

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Cambodian Photojournalist Dith Pran Dies at 65

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The death over the weekend of a photographer and tireless crusader reminds us all of what humans can endure and why it is important to remember history, even the most brutal events. Nearly two million people were murdered and/or forced into labor in Cambodia's killing fields from '75 to '79. Photo journalist Dith Pran was there to help document and then, himself, experience the grief and terror that took place during the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge.

There are also tales of survival and of an incredible and enduring friendship. In 1982, New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg arrived in Phnom Penh and met 30-year-old Dith Pran, an interpreter and assistant to western journalists. Their struggles to report the mounting violence and simply to survive were chronicled in the 1984 Academy Award-winning film, "The Killing Fields."

(Soundbite of movie "The Killing Fields")

Mr. SAM WATERSTON: (As Sydney Schanberg) They think that a lot of people are going to get killed, a lot of people. All right, I've arranged for the evacuation of you and your family. So now it's up to you. What do you want to do? Do you want to stay? Or do you want to leave?

Mr. HAING S. NGOR: (As Dith Pran) I know you love my family, Sydney. But be a reporter too, Sydney. You don't want me.

STEWART: Schanberg and Dith were separated in 1975 when westerners were forced out of the country and Cambodians into the fields, including Mr. Dith. Dith Pran survived four years of countless atrocities, near death, but eventually escaped and was reunited with Schanberg. Pran moved to the United States and their friendship lasted until Dith Pran's death yesterday morning, when the 65-year-old succumbed to pancreatic cancer at a New Jersey hospital.

Joining us now to share with us the inspiring life of Dith Pran is journalist Sydney Schanberg. He won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Cambodia and accepted it for himself and his friend. He's also the author of "The Death and Life of Dith Pran," the book that inspired the movie, "The Killing Fields." Thank you for being with us, Mr. Schanberg. We really appreciate it, and, of course, we offer you our sincere condolences.

Mr. SYDNEY SCHANBERG (Journalist, New York Times; Author, "The Life and Death of Dith Pran"): Thank you.

STEWART: Originally, when you and Mr. Dith were brought together, he was your guide. He was your fixer. But you pointed out to one of my NPR colleagues that he was a terrific reporter. What made him so good at the craft?

Mr. SCHANBERG: Well, he had a mission. I didn't realize when I first met him, but quickly found out his mission was to tell the world what was happening to his people. And his skills became very, very obvious. He knew how to get information. He wasn't a trained reporter. He had worked for tourists at the temple of Angkor Wat before the war. But his skills were really magnificent. He, unlike western - aggressive western reporters, he just knew how to find things out in a quiet, Cambodian manner, you know.

But he was also very clever. And he was just gifted at finding things out. I mean, he was - people think of their assistants in foreign countries and far away countries - journalists had for years needed them always. But little credit was given to them, which was really a failure in journalism, because they really were equals. I mean, we couldn't work without them, and I could never have done my work without Pran.

STEWART: And Pran actually helped save your life at one point, when you'd been robbed by the Khmer Rouge.

Mr. SCHANBERG: Yes, he was a brave, brave and devoted person.

STEWART: What did he do, sir?

Mr. SCHANBERG: Well, we were captured - we were seized by the Khmer Rouge on the day that they took Phnom Penh, which was April 17th, 1975. We had been coming - we were coming out of a hospital. We was myself and Jon Swain of the London Sunday Times and Al Rockoff, a photographer, and Pran and our driver.

And they just drove into the compound of this hospital in a captured armored vehicle, and jumped out and put guns to our heads and so forth. And Pran told us quickly, do everything they say, because these men really were - I don't know how to put it - they were really dead behind the eyes, and I don't think our lives mattered very much to them. They took our belongings and began to push us into this armored personnel carrier.

And Pran just kept chattering at them and talking to them. And he was talking so fast that even my little Khmer I couldn't pick up what he was doing. And they kept, sort of, arguing back with him. And finally he got into the armored personnel carrier, and I said, what was going on? He said, well, he told me to go away, that they didn't need me. They wanted only the big people, the tum tums (ph). So he had forced his way into this armored vehicle to be with us.

He wouldn't leave. The driver was sent away and was saying, what, they didn't want him. And we then drove to - about 20, 25 minutes. We didn't know where we were going. And in the vehicle itself he just kept talking and telling this people that we were not their enemies, and that we were just there to report to the world about their victory, et cetera, et cetera. He was just on and on, telling them that we were French, not Americans and so forth and so on. That's how smart he was.

STEWART: So he used those skills that you talked about. He used his persuasion, all of those...

Mr. SCHANBERG: He did, and he wasn't afraid. I mean, if he was, he wasn't showing it. And he just kept doing it. And then we got to this spot on the river, the Mekong river, where ferries come and so forth. And they opened the back door of this vehicle, and outside the door were two men with guns on their hips ready to shoot him. We figured they were just going to kill us and roll us into the river, which was a common thing during that war.

And he just jumped out, and he ran to the man he thought was the leader because they weren't wearing any chevrons or rank markings or anything, and began to say the same things to him. And he went on for about 20 minutes or 30 minutes, and they kept telling him at times to be quiet, and he wouldn't. And we were just there with our hands behind our heads, and you know, two guns pointed at us. And finally - it was more than 20 minutes, actually.

It was really closer to three quarters of an hour, for all this time he spent because a few times, they shooed him away and they wouldn't talk to him. And then he would come back at them. And finally, the guns were lowered and the officials, this officer, said to him - we didn't even know at the time what they were talking about - and what Pran did was, he pulled a bluff.

He'd been saying to these people that we have been given permission in a radio broadcast that morning, when the Khmer Rouge took control of the radio station, that we, the western reporters, could continue to cover their victory, et cetera, et cetera, and we were allowed to be free in the city.

STEWART: Mr. Schanberg? Let me stop you right there. We do want to continue this story and continue our conversation with you. We're coming up on a hard break, if you can hold on for one minute. We'll continue in just a moment.

Mr. SCHANBERG: Surely, thank you.

STEWART: We're speaking with Sydney Schanberg from the New York Times about his friend Dith Pran, who passed away over the weekend. Stay with us here at the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: Thank you for listening to the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. I'm Alison Stewart along with Rachel Martin, and we're continuing our conversation with Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times about the life of his friend, Dith Pran, who passed away yesterday at the age of 65 from pancreatic cancer. And we heard how Mr. Dith was able to save your life. You were able to help his family leave Cambodia and then you, as a journalist, were forced out, but he had to remain. Do you remember your last conversation before you left?

Mr. SCHANBERG: Well, I don't remember the details because we were both in tears because we couldn't do anything to keep him in the embassy because the Khmer Rouge had ordered all the Cambodians out of embassy - this is the French Embassy, was our sanctuary at that point. It wasn't really a sanctuary, but they ordered all the Cambodians out, and we had tried to fake a passport for Pran.

And the French, who were in charge, said that this would be recognized, and the Khmer Rouge would start killing people if we tried to use this passport. In any case, I was just talking to Pran to take care of himself and I had some sort of, how would you describe - I had you know, some money that I had asked the Times to send in case we needed to - escape money, sort of thing. And I gave him and bunch of money and said, you know, maybe you'll need to bribe your way out.

And my wishful hope was that he would be able to do that quickly because of how good he was at things like that. And then, he just went off with a few other sort of journalism assistants and stringers and so forth up the road, up Road Five, toward where he used to live. And I was just - I went somewhere to just, I was just sobbing.

STEWART: I can't even imagine. You know, the amount of loss he witnessed and experienced in his life was really astounding. More than 50 relatives killed by the Khmer Rouge, including his family and - but in pictures I've seen of him, and I watched that testimonial from his hospital bed that's on the Times' website, he was always smiling in the pictures when he was working, and he sort of, he had this sort of philosophical and composed nature about him, about his experience. Was he as philosophical and composed about what had happened in his life as it seemed?

Mr. SCHANBERG: Yes. He was. I don't know really what words to apply to it, but he - that smile. He had a smile that could light up a city block. And he was often very playful and very funny in the middle of everything. And I just think he was a special person, and Buddhism was a big part of that. He believed in the tenet that if you do good things, you will be rewarded, good deeds, and Pran did many, many of them for people who were at risk during the war. But he was determined.

He was as driven as I was to tell the story, and when there was an accidental bombing, the worst in the entire Vietnam War and nearly 170 people were killed by one of our planes that dropped the bombs in the wrong place, and we were barred from going there and Pran, again, talked a crew of a little boat, a little river boat, on the Mekong, part of the government navy, to take us down there, and we then were put under house arrest, but we got the story because we saw the destruction and the funeral pyres and so forth, and he was...

STEWART: He was determined.

Mr. SCHANBERG: He was determined, and you know that particular day when we came back from some American officers at the Phnom Penh Airport, shooed him away, ordered him away from a plane that was taking off that we were trying to get film on, so we could get to Saigon and be sent from there to New York where - there wasn't any equipment in Phnom Penh to send the photos. And when that particular episode was over, because they forced him off the airport grounds.

And I had to go search for him, and found him, and I came back to those men, and I said, what did you do to my friend? And they wouldn't talk to me. Finally they said, well, he didn't belong here. I said, it's his country. It's not your airport. And they wouldn't talk to me. I went to the embassy because I'm a pain in the neck. And I went to the embassy every day for a week demanding an apology to Pran, personal apology.

STEWART: Did he get the apology?

Mr. SCHANBERG: No, never. But I drove them crazy.

STEWART: Well, I'm glad you did. I think that shows how deep your friendship was.

Mr. SCHANBERG: It was one of the first times I'd ever seen him really angry, and he said to me, with his head down, looking at the ground that day, it's not my country now. It's their country. They've taken it. And he was never angry at Americans. He worked with Americans before, but this was, you know, this was a discourtesy of the highest order, you know.

So anyway, we did get the film on the plane, and that's always the end of the story with Pran. He got it done. So, you know, in the end, we succeeded and his legacy is really a magnificent one. He was, at the very least, he was my equal at all times, and often, my better. And that's what he was. He wasn't just an assistant. He wasn't just someone's guide or interpreter.

And so many times in the past, not so much now, not in the Iraq War, 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 and so forth. But Pran's tale is different, and he became known, and he became part of the conversation, and things have changed. And I think he's part of that change, one of the reasons for it.

STEWART: It's a great legacy to leave. Sydney Schanberg, journalist and author of "The Death and Life of Dith Pran." Thank you so much for sharing your memories. We really appreciate it.

Mr. SCHANBERG: Thank you.

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