NEW YORK –, the Cambodian-born journalist whose harrowing tale of enslavement and eventual escape from that country’s murderous revolutionaries in 1979 became the subject of the award-winning film “ ,” died Sunday. He was 65.
Dith died at aSunday morning of pancreatic cancer, according to , his former colleague at . Dith had been diagnosed almost three months ago.
Dith was working as an interpreter and assistant for Schanberg in, the Cambodian capital, when the reached its chaotic end in April 1975 and both countries were taken over by Communist forces.
Schanberg helped Dith’s family get out but was forced to leave his friend behind after the capital fell; they were not reunited until Dith escaped four and a half years later. Eventually, Dith resettled in the United States and went to work as a photographer for the Times.
It was Dith himself who coined the term “killing fields” for the horrifying clusters of corpses and skeletal remains of victims he encountered on his desperate journey to freedom.
The regime of, bent on turning back into a strictly agrarian society, and his Communist zealots were blamed for the deaths of nearly 2 million of Cambodia’s 7 million people.
“That was the phrase he used from the very first day, during our wondrous reunion in the refugee camp,” Schanberg said later.
With thousands being executed simply for manifesting signs of intellect or Western influence — even wearing glasses or wristwatches — Dith survived by masquerading as an uneducated peasant, toiling in the fields and subsisting on as little as a mouthful of rice a day, and whatever small animals he could catch.
After Dith moved to the U.S., he became a goodwill ambassador for theand founded the , dedicated to educating people on the history of the .