Survivors of the Killing Fields
November 1984
William Shawcross
Photograph by MARY ELLEN MARK

DITH PRAN AND SYDNEY SCHANBERG The friendship came dear, as did the relationship between their countries ‑Cambodia and America.

The tortured friendship of these two men is the subject of producer David Puttnam's new film, The Killing Fields. The friendship came dear, as did the relationship between their countries -America and Cambodia. In 1975 correspondent Sydney Schanberg decided to stay in Phnom Penh to cover the Khmer Rouge Communist takeover for the New York Times. His Cambodian colleague, Dith Pran, sent his family to safety but courageously and imprudently stayed to help Schanberg. When the Khmer Rouge arrived, Pran persuaded them not to kill his friend, who, with other remaining foreigners, was then expelled from the country. But Pran, along with the rest of the Cambodians in Phnom Penh, was sent to work in the vast agricultural gulag the Khmer Rouge constructed.

In New York, meanwhile, Schanberg won a Pulitzer Prize for his reportage and suffered agonizing guilt, fearing Pran was dead on his account. Cambodian refugees in Thailand told terrible stories of life under the Khmer Rouge; anyone suspected of a bourgeois past was in danger of being put to death. The very idea of having worked for the New York Times would have spelled instant execution. But Pran, with extraordinary skill, hid his past, and in 1979, after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge, Schanberg received a message through an East German reporter from “Dith Pran, survivor." A few months later Pran escaped to Thailand. The New York Times gave him a job as a photographer, and he now lives with his family in Brooklyn.

In the film of these events, directed by Roland Joffé, Sam Waterston plays Schanberg and Haing S. Ngor plays Pran.