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Dith Pran: A 'one-person crusade'

10-Dith-Pran-Use.jpg
10-Dith-Pran-Use.jpg

AFP

Dith Pran, on assignment for The New York Times, takes photos at an immigrant rights rally in Newark, New Jersey, on September 4, 2006. He died of pancreatic cancer on March 30, 2008, at the age of 65.

Dith Pran, whose story of against-the-odds survival under the Khmer Rouge was adapted into the award-winning movie The Killing Fields, died early March 30 at the age of 65.

Pran, who had been battling pancreatic cancer since January, died in the early hours at a hospital in New Jersey with his ex-wife at his side, his friend, the former New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg, told AFP.

“Pran was a special person, a very special person. Messages are pouring in from people who met him only once saying that he made a deep impression on them. And he did, on everybody,” said Schanberg, who was at Dith’s bedside until late on the night he died. “He really meant everything to me.”

Pran had worked as a photojournalist at The New York Times since 1980. His connection with the newspaper began when he worked with Schanberg from 1972 to 1975 covering the Cambodian civil war, a conflict that had spilled over from neighboring Vietnam.

When American citizens were evacuated from Phnom Penh on April 12, 1975, Pran and Schanberg stayed behind to cover the fall of the city to the communist Khmer Rouge, who were then closing in on the capital.

Schanberg, Pran and two other reporters were later arrested by the Khmer Rouge and held for execution, but Pran managed to persuade his captors that the three Westerners were neutral French journalists.

The four were released and sought refuge in the French embassy until foreigners there were asked to surrender their passports.

Pran was then exiled to the forced labor camps in rural Cambodia that became known as the killing fields, where for four years he suffered starvation and torture.

The 1984 film The Killing Fields recounts Pran and Schanberg’s struggle to stay alive under Pol Pot’s regime. It ends with them being reunited after Pran’s escape to Thailand in 1979.

Actor Haing Ngor, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Pran, was himself a Khmer Rouge survivor and was shot dead in 1996 during a robbery in Los Angeles.

The inspiration for the film came from Schanberg’s 1980 book The Death and Life of Dith Pran. In 1976, Schanberg had won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the war, which he accepted on behalf of himself and Pran.

“Pran was my brother, that’s what we called each other,” Schanberg told AFP. He added: “It turns out we both had the same mission, which was to tell the rest of the world what was happening to the Cambodian people – in Pran’s case, his people – and that was the mission the rest of his life.”

In an interview in March, Pran said he was not going to give into cancer without a battle, telling New Jersey’s Star Ledger newspaper: “Food, medicine and meditation are good soldiers, and I am ready to fight.”

Born on September 27, 1942, near the Angkor Wat temple complex, Pran worked in the tourist business before joining Schanberg.

“Pran was really a gifted reporter, not just a helper and assistant and interpreter. It was he who made my work possible. None of what I did could have been half as good as it may have been without Pran,” Schanberg said.

Pran lost his father, three brothers and one sister during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, but always remained hopeful about the future.

“He was always smiling. I wish everybody in the world had met him, because they too would smile and would probably think more positive thoughts and do more positive things,” Schanberg said.

Pran went on to set up The Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project, an organization devoted to educating new generations about genocide in the hope of avoiding a repeat of the past.

And in 1985, he was appointed Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“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 of his work.

“I’m a one-person crusade,” he added. “I must speak for those who did not survive and for those who still suffer.” (AFP)

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