You don’t start wanting to be a hero. But sometimes you become one just by sheer will. Dith Pran escaped one of history's worst genocides and dedicated much of the rest of his life to making sure its story was told.
Dith Pran was born in 1942 in Siem Reap, Cambodia, near the famous temples of Angkor Wat. In the early 1970s, he was a journalist in Cambodia, working as a translator for New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, when a most vicious regime -- known as the Khmer Rouge -- sought to remake the country after having seized control in 1975.
At the time, Cambodia was caught up in the tumult of the U.S. war in Vietnam -- a famous book about the country during the war was entitled "Sideshow." It was bombed illegally by the U.S. and the revolutionary Khmer Rouge (or "Red Cambodians") eventually overthrew the Western-backed regime. The group, led by the infamous Pol Pot, set out to establish a purely Communist regime, forcing city dwellers to the countryside and doing away with virtually anyone who disagreed.
So when Dith Pran was captured, he first had to convince his captors that his colleagues (including Schanberg) were innocent -- not American -- and then just survive. As part of the educated elite, his chances were good. But survive he did and made his way on foot across the border to neighboring Thailand.
In October 1979, Schanberg reported from Bangkok that Dith had reached safety “after four-and-a-half years of disguise and deprivation that included once being beaten almost to death for stealing a pocketful of rice.”
Emigrating to the U.S. in 1980, Dith Pran worked as a photographer for the New York Times. He compiled a 1999 book, “Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors.” In the prologue, he wrote:
"The ghosts of the innocent will be on my mind forever. This is why I have compiled these stories. I want future generations to learn about what these survivors, these heroes, have gone through and be moved enough to do their part in helping to make the world a better place."
An estimated 1.7 million people, out of Cambodia’s overall population of 7.5 million, died from massacres, disease, and starvation during the Cambodian genocide between April 1975 and January 1979.
Schanberg’s 1980 retelling of his friend’s saga in The New York Times Magazine — “The Death and Life of Dith Pran” — was the basis for “The Killing Fields” (1984), which won three Academy Awards and was nominated for four others, including best picture.