Dith Pran

Article excerpt

Survivor of the 'Killing Fields'

It was a perhaps inescapable irony that while millions of people around the world knew the story of Dith Pran - the courageous reporter's assistant who survived the horrors of Cambodia's "Killing Fields" - most would have associated his name with the face of another man.

In 1984, almost a decade after Dith was forced into a murderous labour camp by the Khmer Rouge and five years after he was reunited with the New York Times reporter for whom he was working, Roland Joffe's film The Killing Fields brought the horrors of the Cambodian genocide to the wider world. The role of Dith was central to the story, and he was played in the movie by the Cambodian actor Haing Ngor - himself a Killing Fields survivor. His performance was so powerful and memorable that it won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Dith would not have been bothered that he had been "eclipsed" in this way. From 1980, when he started a new life in the United States, he divided his time into two lives; one as a photographer for The New York Times, which had helped him move to the US, and the other as a campaigner who spread the word about the genocide in his own country. Dith, who established a holocaust awareness project, said in an interview shortly before his death: "What matters is that we remember and we keep talking and maybe some day we will mean it when we say about a holocaust 'Never again'."

Dith Pran was born in 1942 at Siem Reap, the site of the remarkable Angkor Wat ruins that date to the 12th century. His father was a public-works official and having learned French at school Dith taught himself English. During the 1960s he worked as a translator for US officials in the capital, Phnom Penh, but as the country's relations with the US worsened he took other jobs. When the country's leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk was deposed in a 1970 coup and Cambodian troops went to war with the Khmer Rouge, Dith returned to Phnom Penh and worked as an interpreter for foreign correspondents.

In April 1975 he was working with the reporter Sydney Schanberg when the Maoist-inspired forces finally reached the capital. He was offered the chance to leave the country but chose to stay and work, deciding that telling the world of the horror that was taking place was more important. …