Writing that Inspired a Film
The Death and Life of Dith Pran – now an eBook. With the addition of a prologue updating the lives of New York Times foreign correspondent Sydney Schanberg and his reporting partner Cambodian journalist Dith Pran, the story behind “The Death and Life of Dith Pran” is complete. Originally published as a New York Times magazine article in 1980, and later as a companion book for the Academy Award-winning film The Killing Fields, this eBook is the best-known eyewitness account of the fall of Cambodia to the genocidal Khmer Rouge in 1975. In the book, Sydney Schanberg reports on events during in the final days of the Communist takeover when when foreigners gathered in the French Embassy for safety. As a Cambodian, Dith Pran was ordered to leave the compound and join the mass exodus from Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge ordered the city to be emptied. After four years of near starvation and forced labor during the Khmer Rouge “agrarian revolution,” Pran escaped to a refugee camp near the Thai border. Schanberg was then able to bring him to the U.S. and to The New York Times where the two collaborated on their story.
An Anthology of War Writings
When Sydney Schanberg decided to remain in Cambodia and cover the fall of that country to the communist Khmer Rouge in April 1975, his main consideration was staying with the story he had been reporting in The New York Times for the previous five years—how America pushed its war in Vietnam into this small neighboring country and consumed it. His daily dispatches were written with haunting detail, often by candle-light through the night, after perilous daytime visits to the scenes of battles or bombings and solidified Schanberg’s reputation as a premier war correspondent.
For his account of the war and the collapse of Cambodia, he received the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting “at great risk,” as well as the George Polk Award and numerous other distinguished journalism prizes. The Academy Award–winning film The Killing Fields, which brought the Cambodian tragedy to worldwide attention, was based on Schanberg’s experience in the final days of the country’s collapse when he was forced to leave behind his Cambodian colleague Dith Pran.
The highly personal story of his search for Pran—who was feared lost in the brutal chaos imposed after the takeover by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime—was first published in The New York Times Magazine as “The Death and Life of Dith Pran,” and is included in the anthology.However, Cambodia and Vietnam were not Sydney’s first exposure to armed conflict. On overseas assignment for the Times in 1971—as bureau chief in New Delhi during the Indira Gandhi years—he went to the front lines of a little-known war, the struggle for independence in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. He reported that clash between the Indian and Pakistani armies, and the ethnic cleansing that preceded it.
After leaving Asia, Syd Schanberg went back to the Times’ home office, where he was appointed City Editor and then Op-Ed columnist until 1985 when he left and moved to New York Newsday. During those years, he began digging into the fate of U.S. POWs in Vietnam and the mounting body of evidence that men were left behind even though then President Richard M. Nixon declared that all our prisoners had been returned.
During the summer of 1997, elements of the communist Khmer Rouge – having retreated to remote jungle areas after being pushed from power by the Vietnamese Army — began to fragment. When it appeared that Pol Pot, the communist leader might possibly be brought to justice, Sydney returned to Phnom Penh for Vanity Fair magazine to report on the story. On the first weekend of that trip he found himself once again covering war in Cambodia when a military coup took place, deposing Prince Ranarridh, the royalist co-prime minister who had been making overtures to the Khmer Rouge. The account of that episode is included in the book.
Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Sydney Schanberg was one of the first reporters to reveal that the pretext for that war had been established in the 1990s via a manifesto published by the neo-conservative think tank, Project for a New American Century, founded by men who later became major figures in the Bush Administration. In the book’s final chapter, Sydney dissects the ideology that spawned one of the longest and most controversial wars in American history.