Sydney H. Schanberg, New York Times Reporter Who Chronicled Khmer Rouge Terror, Dies At 82
Sydney H. Schanberg, the New York Times reporter who chronicled the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the mid-1970s and whose reporting became the basis for the critically acclaimed film The Killing Fields, has died at the age of 82:
Sydney H. Schanberg, a correspondent for The New York Times who won a Pulitzer Prize for covering Cambodia’s fall to the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and inspired the film “The Killing Fields” with the story of his Cambodian colleague’s survival amid the genocide of millions, died on Saturday in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He was 82.
His death was confirmed by Charles Kaiser, a friend and former Times reporter, who said Mr. Schanberg had a heart attack on Tuesday.
Restive, intense, a Harvard-educated newspaperman with bulldog tenacity, Mr. Schanberg was 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.
In the spring of 1975, as Pol Pot’s Communist guerrillas closed in on the capital of Phnom Penh after five years of civil war in Cambodia, Mr. Schanberg and his assistant, Dith Pran, refused to heed directives from Times editors in New York to evacuate the city, and remained behind as nearly all Western reporters, diplomats and senior officials of Cambodia’s American-backed Lon Nol government fled for their lives.
“Our decision to stay,” Mr. Schanberg wrote later, “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 behavior we had written so often about.”
But when the guerrillas rolled in, after a brief period of calm, there was widespread shooting, looting and many executions. Mr. Schanberg and Mr. Dith were seized and threatened with death. “Most of the soldiers are teenagers,” Mr. Schanberg noted in his last dispatch. “They are universally grim, robotlike, brutal. Weapons drip from them like fruit from trees — grenades, pistols, rifles, rockets.”
Mr. Dith’s pleas saved Mr. Schanberg, and the two journalists took refuge in the French Embassy compound, a vestige of colonial rule. Later, Mr. Dith and other Cambodians were expelled from the compound and forced to join an exodus of civilians into the countryside.
It was the beginning of a monstrous social experiment: the expulsion of millions from cities and the suppression of educated classes to recast Cambodia as an agrarian utopia. The failed experiment over the next four years cost the lives of two million people to starvation, disease, slave-labor brutality and murder.
Two weeks after his capture, Mr. Schanberg and other foreigners were evacuated by truck to Thailand, where he filed the first account of the fall and emptying of Phnom Penh. He told of massacres and fires, of streets and roads littered with bodies, of forced marches that turned the city overnight into a graveyard.
“Two million people suddenly moved out of the city in stunned silence — walking, bicycling, pushing cars that had run out of fuel, covering the roads like a human carpet,” he wrote. “A once-throbbing city became an echo chamber of silent streets lined with abandoned cars and gaping, empty shops. Streetlights burned eerily for a population that was no longer there.
Mr. Schanberg returned to New York. Overwhelmed with guilt over having to leave Mr. Dith behind, he asked for time off to write of his experiences, to help Mr. Dith’s refugee wife and four children establish a new life in San Francisco and to begin the seemingly hopeless task of finding his friend.
For years there was no news of Mr. Dith, who had disguised his educated background and survived beatings, backbreaking labor and a diet of insects, rodents and as little as a tablespoon of rice a day. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and replaced Pol Pot with a client regime. Mr. Dith escaped over the Thai border in 1979 and was soon reunited with Mr. Schanberg.
After moving Mr. Dith and his family to New York and helping him obtain a job as a photographer at The Times, Mr. Schanberg wrote “The Death and Life of Dith Pran,” a 1980 cover article for The New York Times Magazine, which was later published as a book. The story became the basis for Roland Joffé’s 1984 movie, “The Killing Fields,” starring Sam Waterston as Mr. Schanberg and Dr. Haing S. Ngor as Mr. Dith. Dr. Ngor, who won an Oscar for best supporting actor, was a physician who had also survived the Cambodian holocaust.
The film was widely praised. “‘The Killing Fields’ emerges as an emotionally charged vision of hell on earth, a jolting reminder of the wanton destruction of a gentle people by another of history’s madmen,” Kathleen Carroll wrote in The Daily News. But Vincent Canby of The Times called it “diffuse and wandering,” adding, “Something vital is missing, and that’s the emotional intensity of Mr. Schanberg’s first-person prose.”
Dith Pran died in 2008 after a long career as a photojournalist. Along with Schanberg, he deserves thanks for standing witness to one of the most relentless terror regimes of the 20th Century, and surviving.