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‘Killing Fields’ hero laid to rest

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Anthony Ramirez  Apr 07, 2008

South Plainfield, New Jersey (US ASIAN WIRE) -- Years later, as he stood in a funeral home here, Sydney Schanberg remembered the day he stood before a Khmer Rouge firing squad in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh was falling and there was chaos. Schanberg and two other journalists had been seized by invading Khmer Rouge soldiers. Dith Pran, Schanberg's interpreter and assistant, quickly sensed what was about to happen.

Dith argued in Khmer, that yes, Schanberg and the others were newsmen, but they were not American, but French. They were not there to write anything bad about the soldiers, Dith insisted, but simply to record the glorious triumph of the Khmer Rouge.

Khmer Rouge officers were consulted, more words were exchanged. Hours passed. Finally, Dith's unrelenting blarney worked, the guns were lowered and Schanberg and the others were set free.

For a standing-room only gathering of friends and family today, Schanberg told this and other stories about Dith's courage and skill as a journalist.

Dith, a longtime photographer for The New York Times and the subject of the Academy Award winning film, "The Killing Fields," died of pancreatic cancer on March 30 at the age of 65.

"He was not only my equal," Schanberg said, "he was often my better."

Certainly, Schanberg said, Dith excelled him in pranks. One day, in 1983, as Schanberg was lounging poolside at a Phnom Penh hotel with other journalists, Dith pulled one of his better practical jokes.

Dith dashed to Schanberg's side, whispered something urgent, Schanberg looked surprised and they both ran to their car. The other reporters were stunned.

As the finest foreign correspondents in the Western world also dashed to their cars, Schanberg and Dith watched and laughed uproariously.

They drove around the block and returned to the hotel for a leisurely lunch.
Hours later, the exhausted and puzzled correspondents also returned to the hotel and asked Dith and Schanberg what was their big scoop. "Pran and I just said, We really can't talk about it."

During Dith's last days, Schanberg said a night nurse at Dith's hospital called him "the effervescent soul." Indeed, those at the funeral home today laughed during a slide show of Dith's life.

A photograph of Dith in his sickbed showed him with a camera, a long lens and a wide grin.

A son, Dith Titonath, talked about the Cambodian genocide, for which his father coined the term, "The Killing Fields."

"I never thought I was going to see my father again," said Titonath, a small child when his mother and other siblings escaped on one of the last helicopters out of Cambodia.

When they were reunited in the United States after Dith's brutal odyssey out of Cambodia, Titonath said he could barely recognize his father, who was frail, stooped and missing teeth.

When Titony, another of Pran's sons, saw his father's privations depicted in the 1984 movie, he asked him whether Dith really had to eat a raw salamander in order to survive. Pran replied yes, and rats and the bark off a tree, too.

So many peasants were starving, Pran continued, that you might see a water buffalo with his tail one day and the next day the tail would be missing, because a peasant had eaten it.

Near the end, Pran talked openly about death. Schanberg at his bedside told Pran that he believed in an afterlife. "You know," Schanberg said, " we'll have to work out a way of communicating with each other."

Pran thought for a long few seconds and replied, "I'll send you my dreams."

Schanberg, his voice breaking, recalled saying, "And I will send you mine."

[Anthony Ramirez is a reporter for The New York Times]

‘Killing Fields’ hero laid to rest

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