’Killing Fields’ reporter Sydney Schanberg dead at 82

PTI Washington | Updated on January 17, 2018 Published on July 09, 2016

Sydney Schanberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent who chronicled the Khmer Rouge’s brutal rise to power in Cambodia in the 1970s, died Saturday at age 82.

That gripping account by Schanberg and his story of his Cambodian friend and assistant Dith Pran’s captivity under and survival of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror inspired the 1984 film “The Killing Fields” by director Roland Joffe.

Schanberg had suffered a massive heart attack Tuesday. He died in Poughkeepsie, New York, said his friend and former colleague at The New York Times, Charles Kaiser.

“Syd was a brilliant writer, a fearless reporter, and an important role model for me,” Kaiser said in a Facebook post.

“When he was filing on the fall of Cambodia in 1975, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for each new dispatch to arrive. So was every other reporter in the city room. It was some of the most dramatic journalism I have ever read.”

While the diplomatic community and other Western reporters fled Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot approached Phnom Penh in 1975, Schanberg and Dith chose instead to stay behind.

The Times described Schanberg as “a nearly ideal foreign correspondent: a risk-taking adventurer who distrusted officials, relied on himself in a war zone and wrote vividly of political and military tyrants and the suffering and death of their victims with the passion of an eyewitness to history.”

After the Khmer Rouge took power and violence and executions became rampant, Schanberg and Dith took refuge in the French Embassy.

But Dith was eventually expelled from the compound and forced to join an exodus of Cambodians into the countryside as part of the Khmer Rouge’s radical, murderous social experiment: turning Cambodia into a modern-day agrarian society.

People suspected of coming from educated, prosperous backgrounds were targeted mercilessly. An estimated two million people died in the genocide, from outright murder, starvation in labor camps or disease.

After two weeks at the embassy, Schanberg and other foreigners were trucked to Thailand. There, he filed his first report on the fall of Phnom Penh and the hellish early days of life under the Khmer Rouge and its emptying of the capital city.

Schanberg won awards including the Pulitzer, which he said he shared with Dith. He also set about the gargantuan task of finding Dith, whose whereabouts remained unknown for years.

Published on July 09, 2016
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