‘Killing Fields’ journalist, 82, dies


April 17 1975, Khmer Rouge fighters celebrate as they enter Phnom Penh. Source: Flickr


The American journalist Sydney Schanberg, whose reporting inspired the Oscar-winning movie The Killing Fields, has died aged 82.

Schanberg worked for the New York Times and won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting the occupation by the Khmer Rouge in 1975.

His Cambodian colleague, Dith Pran, was unable to leave and his four-year ordeal inspired Schanberg reporting work.

Schanberg died in Poughkeepsie, New York state, after a heart attack earlier in the week, it was reported.

In 1980, Schanberg described Dith Pran’s experience of torture and starvation at the hands of Pol Pot’s regime in the print media and then in a book called The Death and Life of Dith Pran.

In 1975, Schanberg and Dith Pran ignored orders from Times management to evacuate and stayed in Cambodia when most diplomats and journalists left.

“Our decision to stay,” Schanberg said, “was founded on our belief, perhaps, looking back, it was more a devout wish or hope, that when the Khmer Rouge won their victory, they would have what they wanted and would end the terrorism and brutal behaviour we had written so often about.”

But when the guerrillas took the capital, after a brief period of calm, there was widespread shooting, looting and executions. “Most of the soldiers are teenagers,” Schanberg said. “They are universally grim, robot-like, brutal. Weapons drip from them like fruit from trees, grenades, pistols, rifles, rockets.”

Both were seized by the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, causing one of the worst mass slaughters in history. The killings claimed potentially up to 2.5 million lives.

Pol Pot tried to take Cambodia back 1,000 years, forcing millions of people from the cities to work on communal farms.

Whole families died from execution, starvation, disease and exhaustion.

Dith Pran’s appeal saved Schanberg’s from execution. The pair fled to the French embassy but Dith Pran was taken by the regime and sent to the countryside.

Two weeks later Schanberg was evacuated by road to Thailand.

Dith Pran escaped to Thailand after years of suffering and died in 2008, after first coining the term “killing fields”.

The Killing Fields secured eight BAFTA awards and three Oscars. Sam Waterston played Schanberg in the movie, with Haing Ngor, the winner of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, playing Dith Pran.