Two harrowing stories of surviving Cambodia’s ‘killing fields’

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text. All rights reserved.

For many years — call it very long-range travel planning — I have been reading about Vietnam and Cambodia: books, magazine and newspaper articles, some online sites.

By now, I’ve probably read several dozen books about the two countries, from evocative novels such as Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” to Andrew X. Pham’s memoir “Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam,” to Neil Sheehan’s monumental, 800-plus-page “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.”

I recommend them all.

Journalist Sydney Schanberg’s article appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine in 1980 before it was reprinted as a book.

Decades ago, I read Sydney Schanberg’s memory-searing article that appeared January 20, 1980, in The New York Times Sunday Magazine about his friendship with his guide-translator and fixer Dith Pran. When Phnom Penh fell to the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975, Schanberg and some other Western reporters stayed on, taking refuge in the French Embassy.

The Khmer Rouge separated the Cambodians from the Westerners, whom they eventually allowed to leave. Pran was left behind. This turn of events haunted Schanberg, imposing on him a soul-searching guilt trip of epic proportion through the late 1970s.

Under the Khmer Rouge’s “Year Zero” regime that anticipated making Cambodia — renamed Democratic Kampuchea — a totally agrarian society, cities were emptied of their population. The lives of educated citizens and successful businesspeople were in even greater danger than the rest of the residents because they represented everything the Khmer Rouge despised.

While Pran was exiled to toiling in the countryside — later named the “killing fields” because of the thousands upon thousands of corpses and skeletal remains scattered at execution sites, victims of Khmer Rouge murder, torture, disease and starvation — Schanberg worked tirelessly, writing letters to fellow journalists and humanitarian aid groups, trying to find out what happened to his friend.

After Vietnamese forces invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge in December 1978, Pran returned to his home province of Siem Reap, where he learned that more than 50 family members had died. Through an East German journalist, he was able to get word to Schanberg that he had survived, but Schanberg’s return messages never reached Pran.

Pran knew his ability to speak English and French and his previous association with Westerners ticked all the boxes that would imperil him with the Vietnamese, just as they had infuriated the Khmer Rouge.

So he decided to make the perilous journey to cross the border into Thailand and enter a refuge camp, where, via an American relief official, he informed Schanberg that he was there. The journalist flew to Thailand and had a joyous reunion with Pran, who, needless to say, was in poor physical condition.

With Schanberg’s assistance, Pran relocated to the United States, where Schanberg had been helping to look after Pran’s family, whom he had aided in escaping as the black curtain of Khmer Rouge rule descended.

Schanberg expanded the original article a bit and it reappeared as “The Death and Life of Dith Pran” (Penguin Books, 1985, paperback). I decided to reread it after I got home from last March’s trip to Vietnam and Cambodia.

What my friend Susan and I saw in the Cambodia countryside around Siem Reap underscores that everyday life remains hardscrabble, with farmers plowing their fields with water buffalo and the back-aching work of planting rice still done by hand. However, the outdoor markets we toured were well-stocked as were store shelves, and the days of starvation under the Khmer Rouge seemed relegated to bitter memory.

Conditions are easier in Siem Reap proper, with numerous Western-style hotels, shops and eateries providing employment and tourism driving development. The resilient Cambodians have made great progress in restoring and celebrating their culture.

While we were en route to touring the temples of Angkor Wat one day, our guide, “Tony,” made reference that we weren’t far from the “killing fields.” I should have tried some follow-up questions after that disclosure but I didn’t. Tony himself was too young to have been born during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. But like many Cambodians, it’s likely the previous generation of his family was affected in some awful way.

Schanberg’s slim paperback is only 78 pages, so can be read in one sitting. It’s as gripping as I’d remembered it. Coincidentally, the film “The Killing Fields,” the dramatization of Schanberg and Pran’s story, directed by Roland Joffé, was on one of the local TV stations, and I rewatched that after rereading the book.

The 1984 film, starring Sam Waterston as Schanberg and Dr. Haing S. Ngor as Pran, is pretty true to Schanberg’s article/book, but it also benefits greatly from Ngor’s dramatic input and his emotionally raw depiction of Pran’s and his shared nightmare, drawing on his own experiences that in some ways mirrored Pran’s.

Ngor’s cinematic efforts were rewarded with a best supporting actor Academy Award for his role in “The Killing Fields,” and a host of other prizes and honors.

As harrowing as Pran’s story is, Ngor’s is even more so. An obstetrician-gynecologist who led a comfortable life in Phnom Penh — he drove a Mercedes, was part-owner of a medical clinic and dined out with his girlfriend at expensive restaurants almost nightly — Ngor fled the operating room, where he was treating a soldier, when wild-eyed, gun-toting Khmer Rouge teenage soldiers entered it on April 17, 1975.

Like everyone else, he was forced to evacuate the city. Like Pran, he realized immediately that he must disavow his former occupation. Ngor lived in constant fear of being betrayed by those who knew he was a doctor, certain that this revelation would mean instant death.

During the exodus, he was frantic at being separated from his his girlfriend and her mother, and his parents and extended family. They eventually found one another after days of walking in the countryside.

The now-obsequious Ngor, with two Khmer Rouge soldiers in tow on his Vespa scooter, made a daring return to Phnom Penh in the guise of collecting medicine for Angka, aka the organization, that now lorded over the lives of every Cambodian.

Ngor used this opportunity to collect clothing, food, gold and his own secreted supply of medicine, all of which he used as barter later to attempt to keep him and his relatives alive.

The photo at the upper left is Haing Ngor portraying Dith Pran in “The Killing Fields.”

I also reread Ngor’s “A Cambodian Odyssey” (Warner Books, 1989, paperback, 466 pages), written with Roger Warner. His is a terrifying, powerful story of courage, loyalty and interior struggle against a murderous, mind-numbing, ideologically challenged system of government responsible for 1.7 million deaths.

In his death-defying four-year ordeal, Ngor — laboring in the rice paddies, scavenging for food at every opportunity (and by food I mean lizards, tiny crabs, ants, mice, etc. ) to supplement inadequate rations — was imprisoned three times and severely beaten and tortured by the Khmer Rouge. In the chapters where he details this brutal treatment, he warns sensitive readers so they can skip ahead.

His beloved, Huoy, nursed him through dysentery and malaria, both of which nearly killed him. Without the proper medicine, his return to health (relatively speaking) was near-miraculous. And without Huoy’s gentle and patient attention, and her temper-tempering guidance, Ngor admits his anger likely would have spelled his own end.

He was frequently counseled: “Plant a kapok tree,” the underlying meaning of which was to bury all emotion, disguise vengeful feelings and don’t draw any attention to yourself. “Be patient, be quiet, stay calm.” Wise advice, which Ngor repeatedly reminded himself, but found difficult to abide.

Ngor writes: “Of 50,000 monks, less than 3,000 survived and returned to their former temples. Of 527 graduates of the medical school in Phnom Penh (my thesis, accepted in early 1975, was number 527, so there were at least that many graduates), about 40 survived. Of the 7,000 people living in my home village, Samrong Yong, before the war, about 550 survived, from what I have been able to discover.”

“Of the 41 people in my immediate family … only 9 survived.” This did not include Huoy. Without the necessary equipment to save her, and still concealing he was a doctor, she died in childbirth.

Like Pran, after the Vietnamese invasion, Ngor and a small group made a danger-filled escape over mine-laced terrain to Thailand. He spent months recovering and working in the refugee camp clinics, administering to the sick and injured before coming to the United States.

He settled in the Los Angeles area where relatives and some friends preceded him, doing odd jobs, learning English and living in a tiny apartment. Later Ngor became a caseworker at the Chinatown Service Center, an agency that assisted Cambodian, Vietnamese and Laotian refugees.

It was through his contacts at this agency that he found out about casting for “The Killing Fields.” At first he wasn’t interested, but he auditioned several times, and changed his mind, seeing the film as a chance to publicize the plight of his country.

He found director Joffé genuinely interested in his comments and suggestions to improve the film’s authenticity and generally enjoyed the production process, though returning to Thailand for part of the shooting dredged up deeply depressing memories of misery and loss.

Schanberg won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for his Times article. He continued writing for the Times, before jumping to Newsday. He died of a massive heart attack at age 82 on July 9, 2016.

Pran worked for many years as a photographer for the Times. He died of pancreatic cancer at age 65 on March 23, 2008.

Ngor continued to act and work with refugees, and was an outspoken critic of Cambodian politics. He was shot dead in a suspected robbery near his Los Angeles apartment on February 25, 1996. He was 55. Three reputed gang members were convicted, though there is an unproved theory that Khmer Rouge sympathizers were behind Ngor’s shooting, and that a political hit had been ordered — possibly reaching back to Cambodia — to silence him. Some of Ngor’s relatives believe this to be the cause of his death.


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