Written by Judy Bachrach. Originally published March 2008 on Obit-Mag.com.
Three months ago, just as a United Nations-backed tribunal was preparing for the first war crimes trials of Khmer Rouge leaders, Dith Pran, a heroic Cambodian-born survivor of the torture and starvation those leaders inflicted, discovered he had pancreatic cancer. He resigned himself to his fate. He was not afraid to die. He had seen a lot of that. During the years of the Khmer rule, almost 2 million of his countrymen were either executed or died of starvation, overwork or disease.
"What matters is that we remember and we keep talking, and maybe some day we will mean it when we say about a holocaust: never again," Dith told a newspaper shortly before his death. He meant every word. It was he, for example, who coined the term "killing fields" to describe the acres and acres of rotting corpses he saw in 1979 as, famished and ill, he fled a labor camp and trekked his own desperate way to liberation in Thailand. Among the murdered: 50 members of his family, including his own father, a sister and three brothers.
Although he is known best as the translator who risked his own life to save the New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg (a role celebrated in the 1984 film The Killing Fields, which won an Oscar for Haing S. Ngor, the late actor who portrayed Dith), many of his other accomplishments were, if not as dangerous, at least as praiseworthy. Dith was among other things a photojournalist, a father of four, and above all, a crusader against the collective amnesia that tends to gather in the wake of genocide.
Eleven years ago, Dith placed an ad in a Cambodian newspaper asking for eyewitnesses who had been children during the '70s, when the Khmer perpetrated their outrages, to contribute their reminiscences to a book he brought out: Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields. It is a compilation of horrors: babies murdered by bayonets, their parents with the backs of hoes. The royalties went to his Holocaust Awareness Project, designed to teach American high school students about the genocide that occurred before they were born.
"Part of my life is saving life. I don't consider myself a politician or a hero. I'm a messenger. If Cambodia is to survive, she needs many voices," he once said. His goal, Dith added poignantly, was, "to recruit more messengers."
Born in September 1942 at Siem Reap, the site of the 12th century ruins of Angkor Wat, young Pran was educated in both French and English. These particular skills proved useful. He worked first as an interpreter for U.S officials in Phnom Penh, and later as an interpreter for various New York Times reporters, most notably Schanberg with whom he became very close, bound as much by their perilous shared experiences as by genuine affection.
In 1972, the two became the first journalists to witness the American bombing of Neak Leunk, a strategically vital river crossing near Phnom Penh. In 1975, when the Communist Khmer Rouge took over the country, essentially creating a slave society, Schanberg was one of the few Western journalists to remain, deciding to witness the fall of the capital. It was a risky decision. In April of that year, he, along with Dith and two other journalists were arrested and held for execution. It was the Cambodian who managed to save all their lives by convincing their captors that his companions were French and neutral.
Before returning to the States, Schanberg arranged for the evacuation of both Dith and Dith's family. However, only the family left. ("But me, I'm a reporter too, Sydney," Dith told his American friend, when he explained his intention to stay put in the face of almost certain arrest and very possibly death. "You understand."). Within short order, Dith was sent to a labor camp, where he worked 14-hour days, subsisting on one spoonful of rice a day and, on very fortunate occasions, small animals that he managed to capture and kill. He was beaten and tortured; he battled disease and malnutrition.
It took him four years to make his escape. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, Dith finally saw his chance, walking 40 miles to freedom. From the Thai border camp, he sent a hasty message to Schanberg. The American reporter's response to that long-awaited communication, was brief and to the point: "It restored my life," said Schanberg, who immediately rejoined his friend. He had accepted his 1976 Pulitzer Prize for his Cambodian coverage on behalf of both Dith and himself.
When he moved to the United States, Dith found work first as a photo department trainee at the New York Times, and then as a full-fledged photographer.
But the memory of the killing fields never left him. Dith became a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And he made certain that many of his fellow survivors found their voices. "It's very difficult for them, for these children," he told NBC's Brian Williams, speaking of the young people who had witnessed Cambodia's atrocities. "It's – you know – they're living in real hell." He felt, he said on another occasion, "I must speak for those – who still suffer."
It is perhaps significant that after he was diagnosed with cancer, Dith suggested that its possible causes might lie in that same holocaust. "I ate bugs and even more disgusting things. I drank dirty water, who knows what kind of poisons were in it from all the bombs," he told the New Jersey Star Ledger in his last days. "Maybe that is why the cancer comes 30 years later."
Those were practically his last words. The man who used to call himself "a one-person crusade" has fought his last battle.