The man who told of the Killing Fields dies

By Matt Schudel

In this 1980 photo, Sydney Schanberg, left, talks with Dith Pran at the New York Times office in New York. Photo / AP
In this 1980 photo, Sydney Schanberg, left, talks with Dith Pran at the New York Times office in New York. Photo / AP

Sydney Schanberg, a New York Times foreign correspondent whose courageous reports about Cambodia's takeover by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in 1975 earned him the Pulitzer Prize and formed the basis of The Killing Fields, has died. He was 82.

He had a heart attack last Wednesday in New York, said his wife, Jane Freiman Schanberg.

In the early 1970s, while based in Singapore for the New York Times, Schanberg began to report from Cambodia, a one-time French protectorate across the border from Vietnam.

He provided the first major coverage of US bombing missions that ravaged the Cambodian countryside, including a 1973 attack when a B-52 dropped 20 tonnes of bombs on a remote village, leaving about 150 residents dead.

Schanberg's partner in reporting was Dith Pran, a resourceful and multilingual Cambodian who served as his interpreter and guide. They became inseparable reporting partners, even as a communist-backed insurgency known as the Khmer Rouge began to close in on the capital city of Phnom Penh in early 1975.

As civil war enveloped the country, the US Embassy closed its doors on April 12. Schanberg refused orders from the New York Times to evacuate, choosing instead to take refuge with Dith at the French Embassy. As the only US reporter remaining in Cambodia, Schanberg visited hospitals, where the blood of Khmer Rouge victims flowed down the halls.

On April 17, 1975, as Schanberg and Dith were about to leave the embassy on a reporting assignment, "some heavily armed Khmer Rouge soldiers charged in through the main gate," Schanberg later wrote.

"Shouting and angry, they wave us out of the car, put guns to our heads and stomachs and order us to put our hands over our heads. I instinctively look at Pran for guidance," he wrote, referring to Dith by his given name, which comes last in Cambodian usage.

"We have been in difficult situations before, but this is the first time I have ever seen raw fear on his face. He tells me, stammering, to do everything they say. I am shaking. I think we're going to be killed right there. But Pran, having somehow composed himself, starts pleading with them. His hands still over his head, he tries to convince them we are not their enemy, merely foreign newsmen covering their victory."

Dith's quick thinking led the gunmen to release him and Schanberg. Days later, the Khmer Rouge ordered all Cambodians to leave the French Embassy. Dith became one of hundreds of thousands of people driven from Phnom Penh into an unknown future in the countryside.

As conditions deteriorated, Schanberg climbed onto a truck with other Westerners, crossing the border of Thailand on April 30. He made his way to Bangkok, where he wrote a first-hand account of the fall of Phnom Penh, complete with dramatic details of the terror of the Khmer Rouge.

When Schanberg was awarded journalism's top honour in 1976, the Pulitzer committee praised him for his work "at great risk". Schanberg accepted the award on Dith's behalf, but he heard nothing about his one-time reporting partner for more than four years.

Finally, in October 1979, word arrived that Dith had turned up at a refugee camp in Thailand. Schanberg immediately boarded a flight, then took a six-hour road trip to the border near Cambodia.

The Killing Fields.
The Killing Fields.

In a 1980 article in the New York Times magazine, "The Death and Life of Dith Pran," he described his friend's ordeal. The story was adapted for The Killing Fields, which was released in 1984, with Sam Waterston playing Schanberg.

Haing Ngor, a Cambodian doctor who fled the country, received an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his portrayal of Dith.

The film realistically depicted Dith's life after he and Schanberg were separated. Dith worked 14 hours a day at hard labour, often standing in fetid water, and received an allotment of one tablespoon of rice a day. He survived by eating bugs, snails and rats and by sucking blood from living water buffaloes.

Many members of his family were killed, including a brother who had been thrown among crocodiles. Dith endured frequent beatings, but he concealed his educated background, pretending to be merely a driver and labourer.

In the Khmer Rouge's purge of Cambodia's intellectuals and urban elite, an estimated two million to three million people - out of a total population of seven million - were executed or died of starvation.

Somehow Dith managed to survive. In Schanberg's 1980 magazine article, he described their reunion at the Thai refugee camp.

"A young man runs to get him," Schanberg wrote, "shouting in Khmer: 'Brother, brother, someone's here. You have a chance now. You have a chance.' Then Pran comes running . . . I remember in that fraction of a second thinking how hurt and vulnerable he looked - and literally leaps into my arms, his legs wrapped around my waist, his head buried in my shoulder. 'You came, Syd, oh, Syd, you came.' "

Sydney Hillel Schanberg was born on January 17, 1934, in Clinton, Massachusetts. His father was a grocer.

Schanberg graduated from Harvard University in 1955, then spent two years in the Army, mostly as a journalist in Germany. He joined the Times in 1959 and covered local and state governments before being assigned to the paper's New Delhi bureau in 1969.

New York Times correspondent, Sydney Schanberg ( Sam Waterson ) is surrounded by deadly Khmer Rouge troops in The Killing Fields.
New York Times correspondent, Sydney Schanberg ( Sam Waterson ) is surrounded by deadly Khmer Rouge troops in The Killing Fields.

After Cambodia, Schanberg was an editor on the Times' metropolitan desk. Dith joined the Times, where he had a long career as a photographer before his death in 2008.

Schanberg began writing a column about the city of New York in 1981, often on controversial subjects. His abrasive, headstrong manner served him well overseas, but in New York he often clashed with his bosses at the Times. After he criticised the paper's coverage of a proposed highway project in 1985, his column was abruptly cancelled.

Schanberg quit the Times, then became a columnist for New York Newsday for 10 years. He later wrote for the Village Voice and other outlets and ultimately settled in New Paltz, New York, where he taught at a branch of the State University of New York.

His marriage to Janice Sakofsky ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 21 years, Jane Freiman Schanberg of New Paltz; two daughters from his first marriage, Rebecca Schanberg and Jessica Schanberg, both of Chicago; and three grandchildren.

"I've seen death. Lots of it," Schanberg said in a 2001 interview with the New York Observer. "And you never get used to it. Not really. You tell yourself things in order to function, but you're going to break down. It just gets to be too much. Eventually, you need to find a room where you can sit alone and cry."

- Washington Post

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