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'Killing Fields' photojournalist dies

4 min

Dith Pran, the award-winning photojournalist whose harrowing life story was dramatized in the film, "The Killing Fields," died at the age of 65. Fellow journalist Sydney Schanberg, who covered the Cambodian civil war with Pran, was by his side.


Photojournalist Dith Pran, whose harrowing experiences in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge were dramatized in the film "The Killing Fields," died on Sunday at the age of 65.

He died of pancreatic cancer at a New Brunswick, New Jersey, hospital, The New York Times said on its Web site.

Dith, who used his fame to draw attention to his country's plight, spent the last weeks of his life in the hospital surrounded by family and friends. Among them was Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sydney Schanberg, who worked with him for The Times during the Cambodian civil war.

Best known for his depiction in the 1984 film "The Killing Fields," Dith worked as a translator and journalist assisting
Schanberg, who credits Dith with saving his life when they were arrested by the Khmer Rouge.

Forced into a labor camp in the Cambodian countryside when the radical Communists seized control of his homeland in 1975, Dith endured four years of starvation and torture.

He lost more than 50 relatives to the Khmer Rouge, including his father, three brothers, a sister and their families.

They were among an estimated 1.7 million people who were executed or died of torture, disease or starvation under Pol Pot's 1975-1979 reign of terror as his dream of creating an agrarian peasant utopia descended into the Killing Fields nightmare.

After escaping to Thailand in 1979, Dith moved to the United States and worked as a photojournalist for The New York Times.
Against genocide

He also dedicated himself to speaking out against the Cambodian genocide and ran the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project, which educates U.S. students about Cambodia's dark period. He was appointed a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in 1985.

Dith also campaigned to bring the Khmer Rouge to trial for genocide. After nearly a decade of delays and drawn-out talks with the United Nations, trials at a U.N.-backed tribunal began in earnest last year with charges against senior members of Pol Pot's regime.

"Part of my life is saving life," Dith said on a Web site devoted to raising awareness about the genocide in Cambodia. "I don't consider myself a politician or a hero. I'm a messenger. If Cambodia is to survive, she needs many voices."

Writing about the time when Dith saved his life, Schanberg describes how Dith persuaded the Khmer Rouge soldiers, who had had no interest in taking him, to arrest him too.

"He knew we had no chance without him 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," Schanberg wrote.

In 1976, Schanberg received a Pulitzer Prize that he accepted for himself and Dith, who was still missing. When Dith escaped in 1979, Schanberg flew to Thailand to meet him, an emotional reunion recreated in the film.

In a New York Times Magazine article in 1989, Dith recounted a trip home to Cambodia where he broke down after seeing bones excavated from near where he grew up, closed to the famed Angkor Wat temple site.

He said the bones were those of his relatives, friends and neighbors but said he did not know where his brothers and sister and their families were killed.

In 1997, Dith compiled the book "Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors," which contained 29 essays from people who were children under the Khmer Rouge.

He lived in New Jersey and worked for The New York Times until he fell ill at the end of last year. The newspaper said he is survived by his companion, Bette Parslow, a daughter and three sons.

Dith was portrayed in "The Killing Fields" by Dr. Haing S. Ngor, another survivor of Cambodia's genocide, who won an Academy Award for his role.

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