Gariwo: the gardens of the Righteous

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Dith Pran 1942 - 2008

reporter, photographer and human rights activist

Dith Pran in the United States - 1980

Dith Pran in the United States - 1980

Dith Pran was born on 27 September 1942 in the town of Siem Reap, in Cambodia, a country that was part of French Indochina at the time, but was occupied by the Japanese army.
Far from the capital, the boy grew up with his brothers and sisters in the more peaceful area of the ancient Angkor Wat temples, a popular cultural tourist destination. Born into a middle-class family, (his father Proeung was a public official in charge of supervising road building), Pran was able to attend the local schools where he learnt French. He also taught himself English and, after finishing school in 1960, started to work as an interpreter with a British film crew and for the USA Assistance Command, after the Cambodian government severed relations with the United States. In 1970, when Lon Nol returned from the USA and seized power, relations with the Americans returned to normal and Pran moved to the capital with his family, where he was hired as a guide and interpreter for the New York Times reporters posted in the area. One of these was Sydney Schanberg. The two became firm friends and as from 1973 Pran was to work solely for Schanberg. In the meantime, civil war broke out between Lon Nol’s government forces and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, spreading throughout the country until the Communist take-over in 1975. In April, after their withdrawal from Vietnam, the United States also left Cambodia and all American personnel were airlifted out of Phnom Penh while thousands of Cambodians tried to flee. Pran secured the escape of his wife and four children on an American troop lorry, but stayed in the capital to help Schanberg tell the story of the Khmer Rouge takeover: both men hoped that the situation would calm down, but looting and killing began, the Khmer soldiers opened fire in the streets and numerous people died in these initial attacks. Almost three million Cambodians were forced to leave the city to work in the countryside, where the new regime planned to build its power base.
Pran, Schanberg and two other journalists were visiting a hospital to report on the situation of the dead and wounded when they were arrested by a group of armed Khmer Rouge determined to execute them on the spot. At the risk of his own life, Pran managed to dissuade the soldiers and to take refuge with Schanberg and the other journalists in the French Embassy. They thereby saved their lives, but only the foreigners managed to escape by helicopter and return to the United States. In the US Schanberg took care of Pran’s wife and children while his Cambodian friend was stuck in Cambodia. For Pran, as for so many of his countrymen, five years of terror were about to begin.
1975 was called "Year Zero", to symbolize the fact that Cambodia was being "re-founded": the Khmer Rouge were ordered to execute anyone wearing glasses, make-up, watches or other symbols of western influence. Pran was sent to a village to be “re-educated”, along with other inhabitants. “Re-education” involved beatings with bamboo canes, summary executions, extenuating forced labour and a diet of rise soup: prisoners were starved and reduced to eating anything they could get their hands on, from snakes to snails, from rats to the flesh of corpses. Almost two million Cambodians perished in these conditions, while the world turned a blind eye and the United States, who had withdrawn from south-east Asia, profoundly marked by the Vietnamese experience, turned their attention to other issues. In the meantime, in 1976, Sydney Schanberg received the Pulitzer prize for his reports from Cambodia and stepped up his efforts, unfortunately in vain, to find out what had happened to Pran.
It was not until January 1979, when the Vietnamese invasion overthrew the regime of the Khmer Rouge, that the population was able to return to the city.
Dith survived, but discovered that 50 members of his family had been murdered. He decided to escape, fearing that his past contacts with the Americans would persuade the Vietnamese that he had been a spy in the service of the US enemy.
In July 1979 he and other refugees began a gruelling trek (sixty miles a day through minefields, surrounded by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge troops), all the way to the Thai border, where he arrived in October of that year and took shelter in a refugee camp. Here he asked an American official to contact Schanberg, who rushed to the rescue of his Cambodian friend and helped him to reach the United States. In San Francisco Pran was reunited with his family, he started to work as a reporter for the New York Times and in 1986 was granted American citizenship.

Dith spent the rest of his life campaigning against genocide and especially in favour of the victims of the Cambodian killing fields: he returned to his native country numerous times to try to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice, and with his second wife, Kim Depaul, he created the "Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project", placing photographic documentation on the Internet that would help Cambodians trace missing family members. In 1997, in the book Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors, he published interviews with twenty-nine survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime.
The events that overwhelmed Dith Pran’s life and his friendship with Sydney Schanberg provided Roland Joffé with the story for his film The Killing Fields, which won three Oscars.
After his second divorce Pran lived in an extended family with his partner, Bette Parslow, his four children, his sister Samproeuth and six nephews and nieces.
Dith Pran died of cancer on 31 March 2008 at the age of 65. He was working to set up another organization, as yet without a name, to help Cambodia. He often said that his greatest regret was not to have been able to see Pol Pot in the dock, charged with genocide before the whole world.

Link: Movie "The Killing Fields"

The difficult defense of human dignity

In communist totalitarianism

The Gulag as the organized system of soviet labor camps was a powerful instrument for the extermination of entire groups of citizens by the communist totalitarian regime, in the USSR since half of the Twenties and then by emulation of the other countries of the communist bloc, both in Europe and in the Far East.
Through terror, the regime exerted an iron grip over the population who completely submitted to the regime. 

For those who opposed the regime the question was not about risking their lives to rescue other human beings, but to save their true identity at the cost of their life. Through this, indirectly, other lives were saved and this courageous kind of moral resistance contributed to the collapse of the Soviet empire, which collapsed at the end of 1989.