Cambodian Photojournalist Dith Pran Dies at 65 Dith Pran documented — and experienced himself — the terror of Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Correspondent Sydney Schanberg reflects on a relationship with Pran chronicled in the 1984 Academy-award-winning film, The Killing Fields.
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Cambodian Photojournalist Dith Pran Dies at 65

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Cambodian Photojournalist Dith Pran Dies at 65

Cambodian Photojournalist Dith Pran Dies at 65

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ALISON STEWART, Host:

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")

M: (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?

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

STEWART: 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.

M: 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?

M: 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.

M: Yes, he was a brave, brave and devoted person.

STEWART: What did he do, sir?

M: 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...

M: 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.

M: 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?

M: 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?

M: 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.

M: 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?

M: No, never. But I drove them crazy.

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

M: 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.

M: Thank you.

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