Inspiration behind The Killing Fields dies aged 82…
Tuesday of this week saw the passing of a journalist whose record in the field of reportage more than qualifies him for the sadly abused title of ‘legendary’. The former New York Times journalist won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in 1975 and was the inspiration for the quite brilliant film The Killing Fields.
Along with his Cambodian friend and assistant, Dith Pran, Schanberg ignored all pleas from his newspaper and stayed back in Phnom Penh to record the arrival of the victorious Khmer Rouge. This was a new kind of army, one which contained kids who saw Westerners as prime targets and indeed these child soldiers would go on to take hostage both Schanberg and Pran.
In later interviews he would tell of his belief that once the capital had been overtaken the violence would end and the Khmer Rouge would quickly instil a sense of calm and structured government. Nobody could have foreseen the genocide which ravaged the lives of millions of innocent Cambodians, least of all Schanberg. In the end it was the plea bargaining by Dith which saved him and following a stay at the derelict French Embassy he was deported to Thailand whilst Dith was sent to the fields where he was forced to hide his education and suffered months of beatings, hard labour and near starvation.
Returning to New York Schanberg set about finding a home for Dith’s family in America. Nobody knew his whereabouts until Thailand invaded Cambodia in 1978, deposed Pol Pot and allowed Dith to cross the border to freedom the following year. Once he and his family were safely settled in New York Schanberg wrote a book based on Dith’s experiences which, in 1984 would become the inspiration for The Killing Fields.
Before moving to South East Asia Schanberg was the bureau chief for The Times in New Delhi and covered the thirteen day war between India and Pakistan in 1971. But it was his reporting in Vietnam and more especially Cambodia which cemented his place in the journals of classic reportage.
Throughout the 1980s he worked in America for New York Newsday and returned briefly to Cambodia in 1989 and 1997. It is worthwhile looking out for his writings, there is an anthology of his work called Beyond the killing Fields and there is of course, the film.