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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Tributes Flow for 'Killing Field' Hero Dith Pran

New York Times photographer Dith Pran, who survived the Cambodian 'killing fields', on assignment in 2006 (file photo) (AFP/Getty Images: Michael Nagle)

Tributes flow for 'killing field' hero Dith Pran
By Paula Kruger
Source from: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/03/31/2203854.htm

His life's story was brought to the world in the award-winning film The Killing Fields, about the brutal Cambodian regime of the Khmer Rouge.

Today, friends and colleagues are paying tribute to photojournalist Dith Pran, who died last night in a New Jersey hospital.

Among those praising his courage and integrity is the former New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg, who still describes Mr Pran as his brother and credits him with saving his life during the Cambodian civil war.

Mr Schanberg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, was driving from New York to New Jersey to be with the family of Mr Pran when he spoke to The World Today.

It was Mr Schanberg's New York Times article "The Death and Life of Dith Pran" that inspired the award-winning film The Killing Fields.

Theirs has been a gripping relationship in both film and real life.

Mr Schanberg says he hired Dith Pran in 1972 as a translator and journalist during the confusion of Cambodia's civil strife.

"He was maybe the smartest reporter that I ever met. He was terrific guy. I mean, he was very, very special and he was also very playful and funny when we were at our free times, and he had this smile," Mr Schanberg said.

"You've probably seen some pictures with his smile. He had a smile that would light up a skyscraper."

But Mr Schanberg said it did not surprise him that Mr Pran was a happy person, despite the scars.

"It seemed appropriate with him because he was taking everything seriously," he said.

"He was just showing that you had to live and move on and do ordinary things in the middle of chaos and insanity - which was the war - and it was a good lesson."

Surviving the Khmer Rouge

Mr Schanberg says his strongest memory of Mr Pran will be the day he saved the lives of three journalists with quick-thinking, fast-talking and a lot of bravado.

Mr Pran managed to get them into the safety of the French embassy in Phnom Penh.

But when the foreign journalists were ordered to leave the country, Mr Pran was exiled to the 'killing fields', the forced labour camps in the Cambodian countryside where he endured four years of starvation and torture.

He eventually managed to escape and made his way to a refugee camp on the border with Thailand. It was there that Mr Schanberg was finally reunited with his friend.

"Pran came around the corner from the long-house and he was wobbling because his legs were weakened," Mr Schanberg said.

"He had suffered from malnutrition and everything. And he had a gap in his teeth. He was really wobbling and he saw me and then he started to run on those wobbly feet.

"Finally, I started to run and he threw himself - just as you saw in the movie - they did that just exactly as it happened.

"He threw his legs around me and we just held each other for what seemed like many minutes and we had a - I asked him if he could forgive me and that's in the film too.

"He just said right away, he said, 'nothing to forgive, nothing to forgive'. We were brothers in Cambodia and we were now brothers again out and that's the way we will stay.

Mr Pran moved to the United States and began working with the New York Times as a photojournalist in 1980.

He was still working with them last year when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

In an interview with the newspaper recorded earlier this month, Mr Pran describes how he wants to be remembered.

"My job want to remember that please, everybody must stop the killing field," he said.

"One time is too many. If they can do that for me, my spirit will be happy."

Mr Pran will be cremated at a Buddhist ceremony in New Jersey later this week.

--> Website: http://www.dithpran.org/

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