DITH PRAN, 75
'Killing Fields' survivor, news photographer
Dith Pran, the Cambodian-born journalist whose harrowing tale of enslavement and eventual escape from that country's murderous Khmer Rouge in 1979 became the subject of the award-winning film The Killing Fields, died of pancreatic cancer yesterday at a New Jersey hospital, according to Sydney Schanberg, his former colleague at The New York Times. Dith's cancer had been diagnosed about 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 4 1/2 years later. Eventually, Dith settled in the United States and went to work as a photographer for the Times.
The regime of Pol Pot, bent on turning Cambodia back into a strictly agrarian society, and his communist zealots was blamed for the deaths of nearly 2 million of Cambodia's 7 million people.
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.
He was "a journalist and hero," New York Times executive editor Bill Keller said in a letter to the staff yesterday. He added, "That last word is not one I use lightly."
Schanberg described Dith's ordeal and salvation in a 1980 magazine article titled "The Death and Life of Dith Pran."
Later expanded into a book, the magazine article became the basis for The Killing Fields, the highly successful 1984 British film starring Sam Waterston as the Times correspondent and Haing S. Ngor, another Cambodian escapee from the Khmer Rouge, as Dith.
The film won three Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for Ngor.