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Pran was a journalist and photographer who served as a translator for The New York Times foreign correspondent Sydney Schanberg in the waning days of the Vietnam War. When Phnom Penh fell in 1975, Pran made the fateful decision to remain in his native Cambodia – a decision that left him cut off from his family who had fled to America and in a day-to-day struggle to stay alive under the brutal rule of Pol Pot whose desire to return the country to “Year Zero” put anyone considered an intellectual at risk.
Like most people familiar with the man, I learned of Dith Pran through the critically-acclaimed 1984 film The Killing Fields (albeit several years later). My interest in the movie was due to the fact that Bruce Robinson, one of my favorite writers, had earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for chronicling the four years of Pran’s life under the rule of the Khmer Rouge (who killed an estimated two million Cambodians) and his subsequent escape to the States.
Starring Sam Waterston as Schanberg and first-time actor Dr. Haing S. Ngor as Pran, The Killing Fields is powerful, harrowing and chaotic, filled with heartbreaking imagery and scenes that linger long after its viewing. There are also moments of simple poignancy and unexpected humor. Ironically, Ngor, who had also survived the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge and won an Oscar for his portrayal of Pran, was murdered in Los Angeles in a robbery.
As for Pran, regiments of traitorous cells managed to do what one of the most barbaric dictatorships known to man couldn’t when he passed away from pancreatic cancer this past weekend. Speaking of his illness, he said, “Cambodians believe we just rent this body. It is just a house for the spirit, and if the house is full of termites, it is time to leave.”
What a wonderful world it would be if more people exhibited the courage, grace, and humanity of Dith Pran.