The Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday heard the first day of testimony from journalist Sydney Schanberg, whose account of his colleague Dith Pran’s experience under the Pol Pot regime inspired the 1984 movie The Killing Fields.
Schanberg and Pran worked together for The New York Times in Phnom Penh, and when the city fell to the Khmer Rouge they both took shelter in the French embassy.
Now 79, Schanberg spoke to the tribunal by video link from New York, where – back in 1975 – he returned after spending two weeks in Khmer Rouge-occupied Phnom Penh. As a Cambodian national, Pran was forced to leave the embassy and join the rest of the evacuees in the countryside.
By then, the city was almost empty, Schanberg told the court.
“Almost the entire population of almost two million were taken out of the city on that first day.”
At a hospital, “we saw people being pushed on beds . . . with bottles of serum hanging from the bed. They were all being forced out of the city. And the avenue that we came out on was scattered with the shoes and sandals that people had lost as they were forced to walk quickly in those huge crowds.”
As to the fate of the sick, Schanberg said: “I can only guess. But two weeks later, when we were being taken out of Phnom Penh, there were bodies along the roads that they were forced to leave.”
Amid the massive outflow of people, Khmer Rouge officers arrested Schanberg, photographer Al Rockoff and journalist Jon Swain – an incident familiar from The Killing Fields, Schanberg’s book, as well as Rockoff’s testimony in January.
According to Schanberg, as Khmer Rouge cadres pointed guns at the foreigners, “Dith Pran, my assistant and brother – he kept going up to these officers and saying that we weren’t Americans, that we were Canadians, and we were here to record their victory.”
Pran eventually managed to convince officers to take him on a motorbike to ask their superiors’ permission for their release, Schanberg said. Meanwhile, fearing for their lives, the three Westerners had no idea what was happening. Twenty or 30 minutes later, Pran returned with the officers, who freed them.
“Pran is very persuasive,” Schanberg noted of his friend, who died in 2008. “He saved our lives and he was a great man . . . and he suffered badly under the Khmer Rouge.”
Schanberg often has expressed guilt for not doing more to help Pran – who was not the only Cambodian to help him before facing evacuation, Schanberg said yesterday.
Through a university teacher he had hired to listen to the radio, Schanberg said he learned that defeated Lon Nol officers had been asked to go to the Ministry of Information.
The teacher “came back to the hotel just when we came back to the hotel, and he had his family in the car. He passed me the notes through the window”, and the car headed out.
Schanberg doubted the family survived the next years.
Meanwhile, the remaining Lon Nol leaders did not survive the next days. Schanberg arrived at the Ministry of Information to see about 50 former officials arrested, including Prime Minister Long Boret. “They later announced they’d killed him.”
Later, Khmer Rouge soldiers came to the embassy and took away several high-ranking former officials, including Prince Sirik Matak, who was killed shortly thereafter.
The French Vice-Consul in charge “obviously felt terrible about it, but he had no choice”.
Schanberg’s testimony continues today.
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