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Sunday, March 30, 2008

RIP, Dith Pran

Actor Sam Waterston , Dith Pran and Sydney Schanberg. Waterson portrayed Sydney Schanberg in "The Killing Fields" (via the Star Ledger)

The name may not be familiar to some, but the gruesome legend of The Killing Fields sure is.

The photographer Dith Pran has passed away today.

Dith Pran, a photojournalist for The New York Times whose gruesome ordeal in the killing fields of Cambodia was re-created in a 1984 movie that gave him an eminence he tenaciously used to press for his people’s rights, died in New Brunswick, N.J., on Sunday. He was 65 and lived in Woodbridge, N.J.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, which had spread, said his friend Sydney H. Schanberg.

Mr. Dith saw his country descend into a living hell as he scraped and scrambled to survive the barbarous revolutionary regime of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, when as many as two million Cambodians — a third of the population — were killed, experts estimate. Mr. Dith survived through nimbleness, guile and sheer desperation.

He had been a journalistic partner of Mr. Schanberg, a Times correspondent assigned to Southeast Asia. He translated, took notes and pictures, and helped Mr. Schanberg maneuver in a fast-changing milieu. With the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975, Mr. Schanberg was forced from the country, and Mr. Dith became a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian Communists.

Mr. Schanberg wrote about Mr. Dith in newspaper articles and in The New York Times Magazine, in a 1980 cover article titled “The Death and Life of Dith Pran.” (A book by the same title appeared in 1985.) The story became the basis of the movie “The Killing Fields.”The film, directed by Roland JoffĂ©, portrayed Mr. Schanberg, played by Sam Waterston, arranging for Mr. Dith’s wife and children to be evacuated from Phnom Penh as danger mounted. Mr. Dith, portrayed by Dr. Haing S. Ngor (who won an Academy Award as best supporting actor), insisted on staying in Cambodia with Mr. Schanberg to keep reporting the news.

A dramatic moment, both in reality and cinematically, came when Mr. Dith saved Mr. Schanberg and other Western journalists from certain execution by talking fast and persuasively to the trigger-happy soldiers who had captured them.

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