'Killing Fields' reporter Sydney Schanberg dead at 82

New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg (keft) talking with colleague Dith Pran in The Times office in New York on Jan 15, 1980.
New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg (keft) talking with colleague Dith Pran in The Times office in New York on Jan 15, 1980.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Sydney Schanberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent who chronicled the Khmer Rouge's brutal rise to power in Cambodia in the 1970s, died Saturday at age 82.

That gripping account by Schanberg and his story of his Cambodian friend and assistant Dith Pran's captivity under and survival of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror inspired the 1984 film The Killing Fields by director Roland Joffe.

Schanberg had suffered a "massive heart attack" Tuesday. He died in Poughkeepsie, New York, said his friend and former colleague at The New York Times, Charles Kaiser.

"Syd was a brilliant writer, a fearless reporter, and an important role model for me," Kaiser said in a Facebook post.

"When he was filing on the fall of Cambodia in 1975, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for each new dispatch to arrive. So was every other reporter in the city room. It was some of the most dramatic journalism I have ever read."

While the diplomatic community and other Western reporters fled Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot approached Phnom Penh in 1975, Schanberg and Dith chose instead to stay behind.

The Times described Schanberg as "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".

After the Khmer Rouge took power and violence and executions became rampant, Schanberg and Dith took refuge in the French Embassy.

But Dith was eventually expelled from the compound and forced to join an exodus of Cambodians into the countryside as part of the Khmer Rouge's radical, murderous social experiment: turning Cambodia into a modern-day agrarian society.

People suspected of coming from educated, prosperous backgrounds were targeted mercilessly. An estimated two million people died in the genocide, from outright murder, starvation in labour camps or disease.

After two weeks at the embassy, Schanberg and other foreigners were trucked to Thailand. There, he filed his first report on the fall of Phnom Penh and the hellish early days of life under the Khmer Rouge and its emptying of the capital city.

Schanberg returned to New York, and while taking off time from his work at the newspaper, helped Dith's wife and children resettle in San Francisco.

Schanberg won awards including the Pulitzer, which he said he shared with Dith. He also set about the gargantuan task of finding Dith, whose whereabouts remained unknown for years.

In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and toppled the Khmer Rouge. Dith escaped to Thailand in 1979 and was eventually reunited with Schanberg.

Schanberg helped him get a job at the Times and move his family to New York.

An article that Schanberg published in 1980 in the New York Times Magazine - entitled The Death and Life of Dith Pran - was turned into a book and inspired The Killing Fields.

Dith died in 2008. Schanberg said at the time that the two had become like brothers.