Dith Pran, survivor of Cambodian horror, faces cancer with serenity
March 20, 2008, 3:14 am
Filed under: Social Issues

Dith Pran, survivor of Cambodian horror, faces cancer with serenity

BY JUDY PEET Star-Ledger Staff (New Jersey, USA), Wednesday, March 19, 2008


The world knows him as a powerful voice for the ghosts of the Cambodian Killing Fields, but Dith Pran speaks barely above a whisper now.

The man who survived starvation, torture and Pol Pot’s murderous children’s brigade is now fighting a new war from a hospital bed in New Jersey. This time the enemy is even more relentless: pancreatic cancer.

Friends and family say that if anyone can win this battle, it is Pran, 65, once described as a survivor “in the Darwinian sense,” whose story was the basis for the Academy Award-winning 1984 movie, “The Killing Fields.”

Pran, who lives in Woodbridge, says he intends to beat the odds, but ultimately, “this is my path and I must go where it takes me.”

“We have already forced the enemy into the suburbs,” Pran joked of his cancer last week as he rallied after finishing a round of radiation therapy. “Food, medicine and meditation are good soldiers, and I am ready to fight.”

The healthy, round-faced man who danced at his son’s wedding just last fall is now a gaunt 118 pounds. The only time in his adult life that he weighed less was when he staggered out of the jungle on the Thai border in 1979, malnourished, covered in scars and suffering from malaria.

But with typical Pran grace, he refuses to despair about his medical odds — “I know how to recover from adversity.” He plans to use his condition as a platform to campaign for early cancer screening. It is also a time to reflect on an extraordinary life well lived.

“You or I could never have survived what Pran has. And he is still one of the nicest people I ever met,” said former New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, 74, who insisted on sharing his 1976 Pulitzer Prize for covering the war in Cambodia with his translator, assistant and friend, Dith Pran.

“Pran saved my life, nearly at the cost of his,” Schanberg added, as he bustled around Pran’s hospital room, talking to staff, taking notes, reading messages from the legion of friends Pran has acquired in his 30-year photojournalism career. “There are no words to say what Pran means to me.”

It is a poignant reversal from a time Pran took care of Schanberg. It was April 1975, in Cambodia, five years into civil war.

The capital, Phnom Penh, was surrounded by the Khmer Rouge, the Chinese-supported Communist insurgents. Most of the Americans had already left, but Schanberg, the Times correspondent, decided to stay and witness the city’s fall.

Schanberg offered safe passage out to Pran, his wife and four children. Pran sent his family out on an American helicopter, but stayed behind to help his friend. According to Schanberg’s 1980 account, “The Death and Life of Dith Pran,” he and a handful of other journalists were arrested almost immediately and would have been killed if Pran had not intervened on their behalf.

He saved their lives, but was targeted by the Khmer Rouge, about to launch “the agrarian reform,” which became a holocaust.

Schanberg and the other journalists were eventually granted safe passage to Thailand. Pran was forced into the Cambodian countryside, where he spent more than four years in conditions that destroyed more than 1.5 million people — nearly a third of his country’s inhabitants.

They were killed because they were connected to the former government, because they were intellectuals, or doctors or lawyers or teachers. People were killed by the Khmer Rouge because they wore glasses, held hands, gave rice to their dying children, or just because.

Those who didn’t die were worked in labor camps 16 hours a day, planting rice that was given to China or hand-building dams and roads.

Those who didn’t die from overwork and malnutrition were plagued by disease, poisonous insects and infection.

It was in this environment that Pran lived by hiding his intelligence, education and his strength. He withstood beatings and torture, disease and malnutrition. Fifty other members of his family, including, his father, three brothers, sister, nieces and nephews, did not survive.

But survival came at a huge cost, one that Pran thinks may now have come due.

“I ate bugs and even more disgusting things. I drank dirty water; who knows what kind of poisons were in it from all the (American) bombs? Maybe that is why the cancer comes, 30 years later,” he says with a small, philosophical shrug.

Pran says he is not a religious man, but he has a Buddhist sense of destiny. “It was right for me to stay behind for Sydney, even if it means I am on this path now,” he says with quiet dignity. “I want to save lives, including my own, but Cambodians believe we just rent this body.

“It is just a house for the spirit, and if the house is full of termites, it is time to leave.”

Before locking the door, however, there is still cleanup to be done, Pran says. There are understandings to be reached with his first wife, Meoun, who brings him rice noodles every day, and his close friend of many years, Bette Parslow, who brings his little white dog, Gabby, to sit on his bed.

The women respect each other’s place in Pran’s life. Meoun, whose marriage to Pran was arranged when she was 16 years old, has been divorced from him for several years, “but a husband is like a kite. You let the string loose, but you never let go,” she says.

She puts out pictures of their children, one of which is the family Red Cross passport photo when they escaped Phnom Penh in 1975. “I can still remember him standing there as we went to the helicopter. I didn’t see him for four years, and when he came back, the nightmares were so bad.”

She gently touches Pran’s face, then tidies up the room. She pulls out get-well wishes from journalists around the world, acknowledging the contribution of this legendary humanitarian and photographer who has worked for the New York Times since 1980.

More visitors arrive with cameras. They are planning a documentary to be shot in his hospital room. It could be blended with footage of his exhaustive campaigning on behalf of Cambodian genocide victims and refugees, his 1989 Ellis Island Medal of Honor and his 1985 appointment as goodwill ambassador to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

There are visits with his children, grandchildren and dozens of colleagues who ignore hospital rules and wander in constantly. They are, after all, media.

There is the determination to use his late-life celebrity to help raise awareness about the “sneaky” ravages of pancreatic cancer, the same disease faced by actor Patrick Swayze and which claimed the lives of Michael Landon and Luciano Pavarotti.

“I thought because I didn’t drink, smoke or do drugs that I was safe. But I ignored signs (weight loss, abdominal pains) until it was too late,” Pran says. “I hope people learn from me and insist that your doctor test for cancer. Do it every six months.

“I am not afraid to die, but I hate to see a life wasted.”

Ironically, Pran’s illness was diagnosed on the eve of war crimes trials for the top surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge — Pol Pot died of a heart attack in 1998 — but he says it no longer matters. “It was all political, the same way America dropping bombs on Cambodia was political.

“It doesn’t matter if death came from bombs or torture,” Pran said. “What matters is that we remember and we keep talking and maybe some day we will mean it when we say about a holocaust: ‘never again.'”

In 1989, Pran returned to Cambodia with a human rights commission. While there, he went back to his birthplace near Angkor Wat to finally inter the ashes of his parents, the only members of his family whose remains he could find after the war.

At the end of the Buddhist ceremony, the monks released a small turtle.

Recounting the ceremony in a Times article, Pran said: “By giving freedom to another living creature we gain merit and release from suffering, for ourselves or for the people we love, in the life to come.”

– Reprinted with permission from the author

Judy Peet may be reached at jpeet@starledger.com or (973) 392-5983 .


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