News World Man who inspired The Killing Fields film dies

Man who inspired The Killing Fields film dies

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sydney Schanberg, whose writings inspired the film The Killing Fields, has died in New York of a heart attack aged 82.

The columnist and foreign correspondent for The New York Times was best known for his work covering Cambodia’s fall to the Khmer Rouge in 1975.

Schanberg’s story of his Cambodian colleague Dith Pran’s escape to freedom formed the basis of the 1984 movie.

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The film starred Sam Waterston as Schanberg and won an Academy Award for the late Haing Ngor, as Dith Pran.

Schanberg was born in Clinton, Massachusetts, in 1934 to Freda (nee Feinberg) and Louis Schanberg, who owned a grocery store.

He was educated at the local high school and then went on to Harvard, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1955.

Schanberg joined The New York Times four years later as a copy boy and by 1960 had become a staff reporter.

In 1967, he married his first wife, Janice Sakofsky, and the couple went on to have two daughters.

Schanberg spent much of the early 1970s as a correspondent for the newspaper, based in South-East Asia.

He won the George Polk award for excellence in journalism in 1971 and then again in 1974.

Genocide in Cambodia

Schanberg was in Cambodia in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge, led by the brutal Pol Pot, was on the cusp of taking over the country.

Sydney Schanberg stayed in Cambodia despite his emplyer's concerns. Photo: Getty
Sydney Schanberg stayed in Cambodia despite his employer’s concerns. Photo: Getty

He ignored directives from his editors back in New York to evacuate for his own safety.

Most Western diplomats and reporters were fleeing the country, but Schanberg and his fixer, Dith Pran, vowed to stay on in Phnom Penh.

Both men were seized by the Khmer Rouge, who threatened to kill them. They were saved only after Dith Pran’s continuous pleas convinced their captors they be released.

The pair managed to find a safe haven in the French Embassy. After a fortnight’s refuge, Schanberg was allowed to leave Phnom Penh to the safety of Thailand, but because Dith Pran was a Cambodian national he had to stay behind.

At the time, Shanberg wrote of the “massacres and fires, of streets and roads littered with bodies, of forced marches that turned the city overnight into a graveyard”.

The Khmer Rouge takeover was called “Year Zero”, a term that implied everything that went before it was purged, and a new society and government would be built from the ground up.

The Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), or Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer), ruled from April 1975 until January 1979.

The regime arrested and killed thousands of former soldiers, politicians, professionals, intellectuals, teachers and bureaucrats.

It is estimated between 1.7 million to 2.2 million people were killed under Khmer Rouge rule.

Estimates vary but about 20 per cent to 25 per cent of the Cambodian population lost their lives.

Searching for Dith Pran

The Cambodian genocide is considered one of the worst of the 20th century. Many of the survivors were imprisoned and tortured.

Dith Pran escaped Cambodia in 1979. Photo: ABC
Dith Pran escaped Cambodia in 1979. Photo: ABC

Millions of Cambodians were forced to work on farms in slave-like conditions as part of the regime’s “agrarian revolution”. Among them was Dith Pran.

Schanberg documented the activities of the “maniacal Khmer Rouge guerrillas”.

“I watched many Cambodian friends being herded out of Phnom Penh. Most of them I never saw again. All of us felt like betrayers, like people who were protected and didn’t do enough to save our friends. We felt shame. We still do.”
It was during this time that Schanberg lost contact with Dith Pran and for years there was no news of his fate.

Schanberg chronicled his search for his captured colleague in his writings.

Dith Pran managed to escape over the Thai border in 1979. Schanberg flew to Thailand to meet him and the two were finally reunited.

In 1980, Dith Pran settled in New York and joined The Times as a staff photographer. Within six years, he and his wife became US citizens.

Dith Pran died in 2008, aged 65, of pancreatic cancer.

“I’m a very lucky man to have had Pran as my reporting partner and even luckier that we came to call each other brother,” Schanberg said at his funeral.

“His mission with me in Cambodia was to tell the world what suffering his people were going through in a war that was never necessary. It became my mission too. My reporting could not have been done without him.”

It was largely through Schanberg’s work that the world heard about the atrocities in Cambodia. An anthology of his reporting, Beyond the Killing Fields, was published in 2010.

Schanberg is survived by his second wife, Jane Freiman, and his daughters, Jessica and Rebecca.


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