Janet Wu and Andrew Tarsy

Dith Pran: Two views of a legend

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Janet Wu and Andrew Tarsy
March 31, 2008

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Janet Wu, Channel 7 news reporter, and Andrew Tarsay, former regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, each have written about the legacy of Dith Pran, the New York Times photographer whose life story focused world attention on "The Killing Fields'' of the Khmer Rouge in his native Cambodia. Here are their accounts.)

From Janet Wu:

The world has lost a true hero, not one so casually labeled for being a talented athlete or movie star, but a man who truly risked his life, and nearly lost it many times, fighting one of the great atrocities of our time.

I first met Dith Pran in the mid-1980s at a convention for Asian-American journalists. I was too young to know of the The Killing Fields when it unfolded, and I had just begun learning the extent of the horror with the release of the motion picture. You know the story. In the mid-1970s, Dith Pran served as interpreter for New York Times foreign correspondent Sydney Schanberg. For five years, the two worked to expose the genocide in Cambodia. When the country was finally on the verge of collapse, Schanberg was able to escape, but not Dith Pran, who was sent to almost certain death in the killing fields.

By luck, sheer will and concealment of his education, Pran survived torture and starvaton, finally escaping in 1979. He came to the U.S. and became a photographer for the New York Times, but his true job was crusader.

I remember the first time I met him. I got a warm, humble greeting from the slight man whose name by then was well known. Despite the growing admiration, it was never about him. His card said “Dith Pran – Photographer” but if you turned it over, it listed information about his beloved country and how the Khmer Rouge nearly decimated it.

I often wondered how, without outward anger or hatred, he so calmly campaigned against the guilty, many of whom had escaped into the jungles, eluding justice. Dith Pran was the opposite of the man who nearly killed him. For the last two decades of his life, Pol Pot hid like a coward in the jungles bordering Thailand, protected by a cadre of brainwashed teenage soldiers. Dith Pran stood firm. He never fled. He never wavered in his quest for justice.

One of my saddest moments was hearing in 1998 that Pol Pot had died of natural causes, an undeserved privilege for a man accused of slaughtering up to two million people, a quarter of his country’s population. I asked Dith later if he was disappointed that Pol Pot was never brought to trial. No, he replied, there were still many guilty people out there, and there was still much to be done to heal his country.

Dith Pran was interviewed a few days before he died. We all knew it was not looking good, yet every update from friends talked of his high spirits. His smile was still there. He said one genocide was enough for this world. There had been too many. If he could help prevent another, then his spirit would be happy. Would it be so, Dith Pran. And may your brave soul rest in peace.

From Andrew Tarsy:

One man the Khmer Rouge could not destroy in their killing fields succumbed to pancreatic cancer on Sunday. Dith Pran, reporter, photographer, humanitarian and survivor is dead at 65, and the world is now a colder place. Pran’s life can be an inspiration for all who persevere in the face of cruelty and inhumanity. After enduring and witnessing unspeakable horrors, he escaped from the genocidal violence and destruction of his native Cambodia and devoted the rest of his life to making the world a safer place. Pran’s courage and determination were as great as the 12th Century Khmer temple of Angkor Wat, which stands only a few miles from the place he was born.

Dith Pran became a hero to me when I saw "The Killing Fields,'' the 1984 feature film that tells his story. I watched a grainy, pirated copy of the film on the television in a budget hostel in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh 12 years ago. I was in Cambodia to see the great temples. But the film opened my eyes to one of the great horrors in history and one man who in his own way stood in defiance against evil.

Pran grew up in the town nearest to Angkor Wat. In the early 1970’s, he found work as a translator, partnering with journalist Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times who was there reporting on the escalating war. Pran and Schanberg were separated when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, rounded up their own citizens and expelled all foreigners. Pran’s survival of the enslavement and torture and his remarkable escape led to a reunion with Schanberg and a second life in the United States. Pran became a Times photographer and an activist, raising awareness of the Cambodian genocide and speaking out about human rights.

Instead of going directly to the temples, I set out in search of the more recent history that came alive through the film. The first stop on my detour was a visit to the well-known former Khmer Rouge prison Toul Sleng, which was originally a school but looked like a seedy tropical motel. Recently turned into a spare museum, photographs of the men and women who had been tortured and murdered there plastered the walls. Pol Pot’s clique obsessively documented the faces of their victims, some of whose “crimes” were simply objecting to mass murder and the destruction of the ancient Khmer culture. In many of the rooms, metal bed frames with rusted shackles still stood on blood stained concrete.

Leaving the prison museum, the Cambodian countryside unfolded through the trees as I followed a series of winding dirt roads toward an area known as one of the killing fields. Arriving at my destination, mounds of earth rose up from the dust. The mounds were separated by pits that had been mass graves from which tens of thousands of bodies had been exhumed. Scattered bones and teeth were visible under the trees and in the dirt and brush. This is the fate Dith Pran escaped. Three of his brothers and millions of his fellow Cambodians did not.

By the time I saw the great temples, my perspective on the entire experience had been altered. Just outside Dith Pran’s hometown of Siem Reap stand beautiful structures that deserve their spot on the list of the world’s great cultural sites. The intricate and massive stone temples of Angkor Wat, largely intact after almost a thousand years, are examples of human achievement and divine inspiration on the same scale as the great pyramids of Egypt. The architects, laborers, and craftsmen who built them chose to push the boundaries of possibility in order to inspire their people. Those who engineered the genocide also chose to push boundaries. The devastation that the Khmer Rouge inflicted on their own people cost millions of lives and nearly destroyed an ancient culture. And good people in Cambodia and around the world somehow allowed it to happen. How can human beings be capable of such beauty and such madness?

With Pran’s death, the world has lost a witness to the worst that human beings can do. But he was not just a witness. Dith Pran’s life was a beautiful monument to human possibility that made an enormous difference and because of the movie, inspired millions. He chose to make his own survival into a tool of protest against injustice. Pran’s story of perseverance and defiance in the face of unspeakable tragedy was no less a monument and no less an inspiration than the giant temple of Angkor Wat.

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