On April 17, 1975, Khmer Rouge soldiers seized Phnom Penh—the capital of Cambodia—and began a brutal genocide that left millions dead. Dith Pran, a Cambodian working as an assistant to American reporter Sydney H. Schanberg, was a witness to these events. While his employer managed to escape across the border, Dith Pran fled into the Cambodian countryside—and into the heart of the massacre.
The basis for the acclaimed movie The Killing Fields, this is the compelling account of the days before the fall of Phnom Penh. It’s the story of one man’s struggle for survival in a country that had become a death camp for millions of its citizens—and another man’s failed efforts to keep his friend and colleague safe. Written within a year of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, it is a work of both historical and literary significance.
Sydney H. Schanberg contributed a moving new foreword to this first eBook edition.
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The Death and Life of Dith Pran
I began the search for my friend Dith Pran in April 1975. Unable to protect him when the Khmer Rouge troops ordered Cambodians to evacuate their cities, I had watched him disappear into the interior of Cambodia, which was to become a death camp for millions. Dith Pran had saved my life the day of the occupation, and the shadow of my failure to keep him safe — to do what he had done for me — was to follow me for four and a half years.
Then, on October 3, 1979, Dith Pran crossed the border to Thailand and freedom. This is a story of war and friendship, of the anguish of a ruined country, and of one man's will to live.
In July 1975 — a few months after Pran and I had been forced apart on April 20 — an American diplomat who had known Pran wrote me a consoling letter. The diplomat, who had served in Phnom Penh, knew the odds of anyone emerging safely from a country that was being transformed into a society of terror and purges and "killing fields." But he wrote: "Pran, I believe, is a survivor — in the Darwinian sense — and I think it only a matter of time before he seizes an available opportunity to slip across the border."
Pran is indeed a survivor. When he slipped across the border into Thailand, he was very thin, his teeth were rotting, and his hands shook from malnutrition — but he had not succumbed.
Pran's strength is returning and he wants the story told of what has happened, and is still happening, to his people. He wants to talk about the unthinkable statistic that Cambodia has become: an estimated two million or more people, out of a population of seven million in 1975, have been massacred or have died of starvation or disease.
* * *
I met Pran for the first time in 1972, two years after the war between the Khmer Rouge and the American-supported Lon Nol government had begun. I went to Cambodia that year after several months of helping cover a major offensive by Hanoi in South Vietnam for The New York Times. For some time, Pran had worked with Craig Whitney, our Saigon bureau chief, as his assistant on his occasional trips to Phnom Penh. When my plane touched down at Pochentong Airport on that September day, Pran had received my cable and was there to meet me.
His notebook was full of the things that had been happening since The Times's last visit. A spacious suite with balcony was waiting for me at the Hotel Le Phnom, my press card and cable-filing permission had already been arranged for, and he had a list of valuable suggestions about what I should see and whom I should talk to. I felt immediately easy with him.
It is difficult to describe how a friendship grows, for it often grows from seemingly contradictory roots — mutual needs, overlapping dependencies, intense shared experiences, and even the inequality of status, with one serving the other.
Our bond grew in all these ways. Other reporters and television crews also vied for Pran's services, but more and more he politely turned them down and worked only for me. By the middle of 1973, his value to the paper now apparent, the foreign desk, at my urging, took Pran on as an official stringer with a monthly retainer. This took him completely out of circulation for other journalists, some of whom expressed their disappointment openly.
Pran and I realized early on that our ideas about the war were much the same. We both cared little about local or international politics or about military strategy. I had been drawn to the story by my perception of Cambodia as a nation pushed into the war by other powers, not in control of its destiny, being used callously as battle fodder, its agonies largely ignored as the world focused its attention on neighboring Vietnam. But what propelled both of us was the human impact — the ten-year-old orphans in uniforms, carrying rifles almost as tall as themselves; the amputees lying traumatized in filthy, overcrowded hospitals; the skeletal infants rasping and spitting as they died while you watched in the all-too-few malnutrition clinics; and the sleepless, unpaid soldiers taking heavy fire at the front lines, depending on the "magic" amulets they wore around their necks while their generals took siestas after long lunches several miles behind the fighting. And then, always, the refugees. While White House policy-makers were recommending only a few million dollars for relief aid, as compared with somewhere around one billion dollars in military aid, on the ground that there was really no major refugee problem in Cambodia, Pran was taking me to the jammed and underfed refugee camps and to the dirt roads not far from Phnom Penh where villagers were streaming away from the fighting, leaving their homes and rice fields behind.
We were not always depressed by the war, however, because the opposite side of depression is exhilaration — the highs of staying alive and of getting big stories. And he and I covered many big stories. Like the time in 1973 when an American B-52 bomber, through an error by the crew in activating its computerized homing system, dropped twenty or more tons of bombs on the heavily populated Mekong town of Neak Luong, thirty-eight miles southeast of Phnom Penh. About 150 people were killed and more than 250 wounded. The mortified American Embassy played down the destruction ("I saw one stick of bombs through the town," said the air attaché, "but it was no great disaster") and then tried to keep reporters from getting there. They succeeded the first day, barring us from helicopters and river patrol boats, but on the second, Pran, his competitiveness boiling as keenly as mine, managed, through bribes and cajoling, to sneak us aboard a patrol boat. We brought back the first full story of the tragedy.
But first we were put under house arrest for one night by the military in Neak Luong — we always believed the orders came from the Americans. We spent the night in a house with some of the survivors. They stayed up all night, listening for the sound of airplanes, in dread that another "friendly" plane would rain death on them again.
On our way back up the river, on another patrol boat, the crew was less interested in getting us back to Phnom Penh in time to file before the cable office shut down for the night than in scouring the riverbanks for Communist machine-gun and rocket nests. Every time they thought they spotted something — be it driftwood or the real thing — they turned the craft toward the shore and opened up with their .50-caliber machine gun.
We were going to be too late if this continued, so Pran told them — on my frantic instructions — that he would double the bribes if only they would ignore their military targets and move at full speed to Phnom Penh. They understood our motives not at all — I'm sure they regarded me as deranged — but their official salary was a pittance, and they did as they were asked.
Days and nights spent like this were what drew Pran and me together.
* * *
I pause here to say that this chronicle, of all the stories I have written as a journalist, has become the hardest for me to pull out of my insides. To describe a relationship such as Pran's and mine demands candor and frankness about self, not romantic memories. I feel exposed and vulnerable. I also wonder nervously what he will think when he reads this. As I write, there is a tension pain under my right shoulder blade, the same pain I felt in April 1975, in the final days before the fall of Phnom Penh, after the American Embassy had been evacuated. We ran chaotically around the city and its perimeter every day, trying to piece together what was happening and how close the Communists were. Our nights were spent at the cable office — I typed while Pran urged the Teletype operators to keep going and push the copy out. Our two drivers, Hea and Sarun, were there, too, bringing me wet washcloths and glasses of weak tea to keep me awake. The city's power was off and there was no air-conditioning. When I would begin to slump, Sarun would bring me back by rubbing my shoulders and pulling on my ears, a traditional Cambodian massage.
Among the papers strewn about me now is a picture of Sarun, shirtless and sweating, pulling on my ears. It is not easy for me to look at that picture. Sarun is dead now, killed in 1977 when the Khmer Rouge, for some unknown reason, decided to execute all the men in his village. Sarun's wife later met Pran in Siem Reap province and told him that Sarun had cried out horribly, pleading for mercy as they dragged him off, his hands bound tightly behind him.
My mind searches for happier times. I remember our visit to Battambang in 1974, when, over a tasty fish dinner, Pran and I smoked pot, he for the first time, and then went gamboling through the unlighted streets of the town, astonishing soldiers at checkpoints as we bayed at the moon. I remember the time in late 1973 when, frayed and needing a breather, we flew to the seaport resort of Kompong Som and played on the beaches for three days. I can see Pran in the water, giggling as he groped among the rocks, looking for the sweet crabs that lived in abundance there.
But as I wander mentally over the landscape of those war years, starker memories swarm, disjointed, out of sequence, clamoring for precedence.
In 1973, Thomas O. Enders, an arrogant protégé of Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, became acting ambassador in Phnom Penh, taking over from Emory Swank, who had refused to supervise the heavy American bombing, and who was relegated by Kissinger to a State Department dustbin because he no longer had any stomach for this futile war. Enders, who made no secret of the low regard in which he held the Cambodians for their inability to defeat the Communist army, had no such reservations. According to participants, he ran the morning bombing meetings at the embassy, where targets were chosen for the daily carpet bombing by the giant B-52s, with spirit and relish.
Enders also became known around Phnom Penh for remarks that some listeners considered openly callous and racist. He would ask, rhetorically, at cocktail parties, diplomatic dinners, and press briefings why the Cambodians did not seem to care as much about human life as we Westerners. If they did care, he posited, they would rise up in anger over the terrorist rocket attacks that were killing innocent victims daily in the capital, and march out into the countryside to smite the Communist army.
Pran had heard about Enders's remarks, but we had not discussed them. Finally, fed up, I asked Pran one day what he would reply to Enders if the diplomat asked him, "Do Khmerscare less about the death of their loved ones than other people do?"
Pran lowered his head for several minutes. Then softly he said: "It's not true. You have seen for yourself the suffering. The only difference, maybe, is that with Cambodians the grief leaves the face quickly, but it goes inside and stays there for a long time."
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge rockets began falling on the neighborhood where Pran lived with his wife and children. One morning he was late coming to work. He explained that just as he was leaving the house, a rocket crashed into the house of a neighbor. A six-year-old girl was severely wounded. Her stomach was hanging out. Pran raced her to the hospital in his car, her mother screaming all the way. The child did not survive.
Another visit to Neak Luong, in 1975, is also part of the mosaic. By this time, the strategic river port is surrounded by the Khmer Rouge, who are bombarding it with rockets and mortars. Thirty thousand refugees are trapped there. Food is short. The gravely wounded are so numerous and the medivac helicopters so few that some of the victims are asking to be killed quickly rather than be allowed to lie there and die slowly in pain. Pran and I fly in by helicopter on January 14; the meadow where we land is filled with the dead and dying. Every fifteen minutes or so, another shell screams down and another half-dozen or so are killed or wounded. Inside the tiny military infirmary, an eleven-year-old boy has just expired on the blood-slick floor. In the bedlam, no one has time to cover him or even to close his staring eyes.
When we arrive back in Phnom Penh, I am frantic to get my film to Saigon, where it can be radiophotoed to New York. There's only one more flight today, an American Embassyplane, leaving in half an hour. While I run to the airline terminal building to call the embassy for permission to send film on the plane, I send Pran to the tarmac with the film, in case the plane comes early, so he can try to wheedle it aboard. When I return, having got permission, Pran has disappeared. None of the Americans on the tarmac — military men in civilian clothes responsible for supervising the delivery of United States military supplies to Phnom Penh — will tell me what has happened to him. With five minutes to go before takeoff, I spot Pran waving at me from behind a warehouse a couple hundred yards away. I recover the film from him, just manage to get it on the plane, and then walk back to ask him what in the world happened.
He tells me that an American colonel ordered him off the airport, citing security reasons. Washington contends that it has no advisers here and that the Cambodians are running their own war, yet an American officer orders a Cambodian off a Cambodian airport.
"The Americans are king here now," Pran says dejectedly. "It's his land, not mine anymore."
I ask the embassy for an explanation and for an apology to Pran. We get neither.
Our lives proceeded in this fashion — from one intense experience to another, an unnatural existence by the standards of normal life, but perfectly natural when living inside a continuous crisis. We broke our tension — we had to, for psychic survival, to push away the bloody images — with good food, laughter that was often too loud, and occasionally an evening of carousing and smoking pot, which was plentiful and cheap in the central market. (Pran abstained after his howling at the stars in Battambang.)
My trips to Cambodia from Singapore, where I was based, became more frequent and my stays longer. I was becoming part of the war, and it was placing bad strains on my wife, Janice, and my two young daughters, Jessica and Rebecca, and on my relationships with each of them.
Once, returning to Singapore after a three-month tour in Cambodia, I noticed that Jessica, then only five, was very shy and distant with me. I tried to draw her out, asking if there was something wrong. "No, Daddy," she said uncomfortably, having difficulty finding the words without offending me, "I love you. But I keep losing you. Just when I'm getting to know you again, I lose you."
But I kept going back to Phnom Penh; my obsession with the story was filling my life. Pran, too, was hooked, for some of my reasons but also for some very personal ones of his own. He had no background in journalism when the war began, but as his skills improved and his interest in the craft grew, he began to see in journalism a way to reveal his people's plight.
Born on September 27, 1942, Pran was raised in a middle-class family with three brothers and two sisters in the township of Siem Reap, in the northwestern part of the country, near the famed Angkor temples. His father was a senior public-works official, who supervised the building of roads in the area. Pran went through high school there, learning French in the classroom and English on his own at home. After high school, in 1960, he got a job as an interpreter in Khmer, the Cambodian language, for the United States Military Assistance Group then in Cambodia. When Cambodia broke relations with Washington in 1965, charging that American troops had launched attacks from South Vietnam on Cambodian border villages, the Americans left and Pran got a job as an interpreter for the British film crew that was producing Lord Jim.
After that, he became a receptionist at Cambodia's best-known tourist hotel, Auberge Royale des Temples, situated just opposite the main entrance to the Angkor complex. Tourism ended with the beginning of the war in 1970, and Pran went to Phnom Penh with his wife, Ser Moeun, and their children to find work as a guide and interpreter for foreign journalists.
As the war dragged on and conditions deteriorated, I drove Pran very hard. I was driven, so I drove him. As always, I pushed him to go a little faster, get a little more done, interview a few more people. When, for example, the cable line out of Phnom Penh would go down, as it did frequently, I would send him over to the cable office to try to coax and bribe the operators into doing something special for us to get it working again. I would raise my voice every time some obstacle arose that could impede my getting a story out, telling him to get the problem resolved, even when I knew that in a country whose communications system was as primitive as Cambodia's, there was often little he could do.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Death and Life of Dith Pran"
Copyright © 2013 Sydney H. Schanberg.
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The Death and Life of Dith Pran,