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Famed Cambodian-born Journalist Dith Pran Dies

March 31, 2008 at 6:50 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Finally, the life of Cambodian journalist Dith Pran. He died yesterday. NewYorkTimes.com conducted one of the last interviews with Dith for their documentary “The Last Word.” It is produced and reported by Patrick Farrell of the New York Times and is available in its entirety on their Web site. Here is an excerpt.

PATRICK FARRELL, New York Times: Between 1975 and 1979, the communist Khmer Rouge regime killed nearly 2 million people in the Cambodian countryside. Dith Pran was there.

His story of survival under the brutal Khmer Rouge was told in the Academy Award-winning film “The Killing Fields.”

In 1972, Dith Pran began working as an interpreter for New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, who was covering the spread of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Together, they reported on the war and eventually the collapse of the country.

SYDNEY H. SCHANBERG, former New York Times reporter: He was just as obsessed a reporter, just as determined and driven as I was.

PATRICK FARRELL: In 1975, the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh. American forces evacuated. Schanberg got Pran’s family out, but the two journalists stayed to witness the end of the war.

Eventually, Schanberg, like all journalists, was forced to leave Cambodia. Dith Pran could not, and he was soon swallowed into the regime’s forced labor camps, where he had to hide his education.

DITH PRAN, Cambodian-born photojournalist: In order to survive, you have to pretend to be stupid, because they don’t want you to be smart. They think that the smart people will destroy them.

PATRICK FARRELL: For four years, Cambodia was closed to the outside world. During that time, Pran was starving in Khmer Rouge labor camps. In 1979, Pran escaped and eventually made it to a Thai refugee camp.

Sydney Schanberg, who had been desperately trying to find his friend for four years, rushed to Thailand.

SYDNEY H. SCHANBERG: I started to run, and then he ran into my arms, and I’m awfully glad that they kept that scene exactly as it was.

PATRICK FARRELL: Pran was soon reunited with his family in the United States. In 1980, he began working as a New York Times photographer, a post he held until 2007, when he entered a New Jersey care facility with cancer.

While genocidal wars developed in Rwanda and Bosnia during the 1990s, and more recently in Darfur, Pran never stopped lecturing to raise awareness of the killing fields.

DITH PRAN: My job was to remember that, please, everybody must stop the killing field, not allow this to exist again. One is enough, too many. One time is too many. If they can do that for me, my spirit will be happy.

GWEN IFILL: Dith Pran was 65 years old.