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"Killing Fields" survivor Dith Pran dies of cancer

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Photojournalist Dith Pran, whose harrowing survival of genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge was dramatized in the film “The Killing Fields,” died on Sunday at the age of 65.

Photojournalist Dith Pran, speaks at a meeting of the National Cambodia Crisis Committee at the White House as First Lady Rosalynn Carter (3rd R), wife of President Jimmy Carter, looks on in this January 29, 1980 file photo. Pran, whose harrowing experiences in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge were dramatized in the film "The Killing Fields," died on Sunday at the age of 65. He died of pancreatic cancer at a New Brunswick, New Jersey, hospital, The New York Times said on its Web site. REUTERS/The New York Times/Handout

He died of pancreatic cancer at a New Brunswick, New Jersey, hospital, The New York Times said on its Web site.

Dith, who used his fame to draw attention to his country’s plight, spent the last weeks of his life in the hospital surrounded by family and friends. Among them was Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sydney Schanberg, who worked with him for The Times during the Cambodian civil war and recalled him as a dogged journalist who was “always doing good deeds for people in the Buddhist tradition.”

Best known for his depiction in the 1984 film “The Killing Fields,” Dith worked in Cambodia as a translator and journalist assisting Schanberg, who credits Dith with saving his life when they were arrested by the Khmer Rouge.

Forced into a labor camp when the radical Communists seized control of his homeland in 1975, Dith endured four years of starvation and torture. He lost more than 50 relatives to the Khmer Rouge, including his father, three brothers, a sister and their families.

They were among some 1.7 million people who were executed or died of torture, disease or starvation under Pol Pot’s 1975-1979 reign of terror as his dream of creating an agrarian peasant utopia turned into the Killing Fields nightmare.

After fleeing to Thailand in 1979, Dith moved to the United States and worked as a photojournalist for The New York Times.

He also dedicated himself to speaking out against the Cambodian genocide and ran the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project to educate U.S. students about Cambodia’s dark period. He was appointed a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in 1985.

Dith campaigned to bring the Khmer Rouge to trial for genocide. After nearly a decade of delays and drawn-out talks with the United Nations, trials at a U.N.-backed tribunal began in earnest last year with charges against senior members of Pol Pot’s regime.

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“Part of my life is saving life,” Dith said on a Web site devoted to raising awareness about the genocide in Cambodia. “I don’t consider myself a politician or a hero. I’m a messenger. If Cambodia is to survive, she needs many voices.”

Schanberg wrote that Dith saved his life by persuading Khmer Rouge soldiers, who had had no interest in taking Dith, to arrest him too.

“He knew we had no chance without him so he argued not to be separated from us, offering, in effect, to forfeit his own life on the chance that he might save ours,” Schanberg wrote.

In 1976, Schanberg received a Pulitzer Prize for reporting that he accepted for himself and Dith, who was still missing.

“There was no way I could have done the work I did without him,” Schanberg told Reuters.

“We became more than friends. We became brothers. That’s how we talked to each other -- ‘We are brothers.’ I know his body has died but I don’t think he’s dead.”

When Dith escaped in 1979, Schanberg flew to Thailand to meet him, an emotional reunion recreated in the film.

“My strongest memory of Pran is how committed a reporter he was and along with that what a giving, special person he was,” Schanberg said. “He didn’t fit the profile of an aggressive Western reporter because he wasn’t confrontational. He did things in the Buddhist way but he found a way to get the story before anybody else.”

In a New York Times Magazine article in 1989, Dith recounted a trip home to Cambodia where he broke down after seeing bones he said were relatives, friends and neighbors excavated from near where he grew up, closed to the famed Angkor Wat temple site.

In 1997, Dith compiled the book “Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors,” which contained 29 essays from Khmer Rouge survivors.

He lived in New Jersey and worked for The Times until he fell ill late last year. The newspaper said he is survived by his companion, Bette Parslow, a daughter and three sons.

Dith was portrayed in “The Killing Fields” by Dr. Haing S. Ngor, another survivor of Cambodia’s genocide, who won an Academy Award for his role.

Additional reporting by Bill Trott in Washington; Editing Patricia Zengerle