When I first saw the movie “The Killing Fields” in the mid 80’s I, like most Americans, was completely ignorant of the events taking place in Cambodia. Like many vets, I saw all the movies that were related to Vietnam in an effort I suppose to find some meaning that I had missed. Most were disappointments but this movie, based on the genocide of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, was so much better than the rest that I ended up watching it 3 times over the years.
It depicts the real life close relationship between western journalist Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian counterpart, Dith Pran who worked as an interpreter for western newsmen trying to report on the war. The movie won three Oscars.
Dith Pran was captured by the Khmer Rouge but managed to survive by hiding his intellectual background and pretending to be a peasant. The horrors he witnessed are for most, unimaginable and the courage and fortitude he displayed is the stuff of legends.
After Dith finally escaped and 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.
He was “the most patriotic American photographer I’ve ever met, always talking about how he loves America,” said Associated Press photographer Paul Sakuma, who knew Dith through their work with the Asian American Journalists Association.
It was Dith Pran himself who coined the phrase “killing fields” when describing the horrifying stacks of corpses and skeletal remains of victims he encountered on his desperate journey to freedom.
Dith Pran died yesterday at his home in New Jersey from pancreatic cancer. He was 65.