By RICHARD PYLE, Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK – Dith Pran, the Cambodian-born journalist whose harrowing tale of enslavement and eventual escape from that country’s murderous Khmer Rouge revolutionaries in 1979 became the subject of the award-winning film “The Killing Fields,” died Sunday. He was 65.
New York Times photographer Dith Pran, sits with his wife Ser Moeun on the lawn outside the Beverly Hills Hotel, in this Tuesday, March 26, 1985, file photo in Beverly Hills, Calif. Dith Pran’s death from pancreatic cancer was confirmed Sunday, March 30, 2008, by journalist Sydney Schanberg, his former colleague at The New York Times. Pran was 65.(AP Photo/Lennox McLendon)
Dith died at a New Jersey hospital Sunday morning of pancreatic cancer, according to Sydney Schanberg, his former colleague at The New York Times. Dith had been diagnosed almost three months ago.
Dith was working as an interpreter and assistant for Schanberg in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, when the Vietnam War 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 Pol Pot, bent on turning Cambodia 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 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and founded the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project, dedicated to educating people on the history of the Khmer Rouge regime.
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