(Photo credit: Barton Silverman/New York Times)

Dith Pran died today. If you can’t quite place him, this obituary from the NYT might help:

Dith Pran was born on Sept. 23, 1942, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, a provincial town near the ancient temples at Angkor Wat. His father was a public-works official.

Having learned French at school and taught himself English, Mr. Dith was hired as a translator for the United States Military Assistance Command. When Cambodia severed ties with the United States in 1965, he worked with a British film crew, then as a hotel receptionist.

In the early 1970s, as unrest in neighboring Vietnam spread and Cambodia slipped into civil war, the Khmer Rouge grew more formidable. Tourism ended. Mr. Dith interpreted for foreign journalists. When working for (NYT reporter) Mr. Schanberg, he taught himself to take pictures.

When the Khmer Rouge won control in 1975, Mr. Dith became part of a monstrous social experiment: the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people from the cities and the suppression of the educated classes with the goal of recreating Cambodia as an agricultural nation.

To avoid summary execution, Mr. Dith hid that he was educated or that he knew Americans. He passed himself off as a taxi driver. He even threw away his money and dressed as a peasant.

Over the next 4 ½ years, he worked in the fields and at menial jobs. For sustenance, people ate insects and rats and even the exhumed corpses of the recently executed, he said.

In November 1978, Vietnam, by then a unified Communist nation after the end of the Vietnam War, invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Mr. Dith went home to Siem Reap, where he learned that 50 members of his family had been killed; wells were filled with skulls and bones.

The Vietnamese made him village chief. But he fled when he feared that they had learned of his American ties. His 60-mile trek to the Thai border was fraught with danger. Two companions were killed by a land mine.

And here’s how we know about him (aside from his later career as a photojournalist):

He had been a journalistic partner of Mr. Schanberg, a Times correspondent assigned to Southeast Asia. He translated, took notes and pictures, and helped Mr. Schanberg maneuver in a fast-changing milieu. With the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975, Mr. Schanberg was forced from the country, and Mr. Dith became a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian Communists.

Mr. Schanberg wrote about Mr. Dith in newspaper articles and in The New York Times Magazine, in a 1980 cover article titled “The Death and Life of Dith Pran.” (A book by the same title appeared in 1985.) The story became the basis of the movie “The Killing Fields.”The film, directed by Roland Joffé, portrayed Mr. Schanberg, played by Sam Waterston, arranging for Mr. Dith’s wife and children to be evacuated from Phnom Penh as danger mounted. Mr. Dith, portrayed by Dr. Haing S. Ngor (who won an Academy Award as best supporting actor), insisted on staying in Cambodia with Mr. Schanberg to keep reporting the news.

Here’s a link to the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project.

Update: Read Jon Swain’s account of how Pran saved his life:

I owe this honourable Cambodian a debt of gratitude that I can never erase. He saved my life when I was captured by the Khmer Rouge.


The monologist/actor/writer Spaulding Gray had a small role in “The Killing Fields” (he had told the director, Roland Joffe, that he knew nothing about politics. “Perfect,” replied Joffe, “we’re looking for the American Ambassador’s aide.”), an experience he later wove into a transfixing monologue that became “Swimming to Cambodia.”

There’s a line that recurs in “Swimming to Cambodia” when Gray refers to the Khmer Rouge–“This made for a strange bunch of bandits, hanging out in the jungle living on bark, bugs, leaves, and lizards, being trained by the Vietcong”–that became the basis for the name of this blog. Over time G Bitch and I reduced that line to “the bark eaters,” which we usually said in reference to anyone behaving in a manner we found dogmatic or needlessly rigid.

I watched “Swimming to Cambodia” again recently. In the post-Rwanda genocide age it shocks less, if that’s possible. That’s not right–we’re all diminished by genocide, thus we’re less than we were in 1987.

And watching “Swimming to Cambodia” for the first time since Gray’s apparent suicide (it’s thought he jumped off the Staten Island Ferry), it’s not hard to find new subtext to his description of “the perfect moment”:

… It just sort of happened naturally. I realized I was out a little further and a little further until I was out a little further than I had ever been in any ocean, in any world, anywhere … I was so far away I felt this enormous disconnection with Mother Earth.

Suddenly, there was no time and there was no fear … It was just one big ocean. My body had blended with the ocean. And there was just this round, smiling-ear-to-ear pumpkin-head perceiver on top, bobbing up and down. And the perceiver would go up with the waves, then down it would go, and the waves would come up around the perceiver, and it could have been in the middle of the Indian Ocean, because it could see no land…

A few years before his death, a terrible car accident left Gray badly injured (broken hip, fractured skull, crushed foot, nearly severed sciatic nerve) and deeply depressed. There had been other suicide attempts. His mother had committed suicide as well. It didn’t come out of nowhere.