When Newsman Sydney Schanberg Was Expelled from Cambodia, His Best Friend Was Left Behind in the Killing Fields

updated 12/10/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/10/1984 01:00AM

In blood and disposition they were an unlikely duo from the beginning. Sydney Schanberg, a hard-ass New York Times correspondent with a hair-trigger temper, went to Cambodia in the early 70s hunting for headlines. Dith Pran, a wily Khmer tour guide with a silky-smooth manner, agreed to take the ruddy-faced foreigner on dangerous news safaris, using bribes and the arts of persuasion to bring home the stories Schanberg was looking for. Over time, as they shared both the exhilaration and nausea of covering a bloody civil war, the men grew to love each other like brothers.

During the brutal Communist takeover of Cambodia in 1975, Pran saved Schanberg from being gunned down by a steely-eyed band of peasant revolutionaries. Three days later Schanberg stood by helplessly as Pran, facing almost certain execution by the new Khmer Rouge government if he tried to leave Cambodia with his American friend, joined a flood of refugees being herded toward slave labor camps in the countryside.

Brought to the screen in Roland Joffé's brilliant new movie, The Killing Fields, this story of friendship between a Pulitzer Prize-winning American reporter and his Cambodian assistant ends happily. The story of Cambodia, where two million of the country's seven million people died during the Khmer Rouge's four-year reign of terror, ends in unmitigated sorrow.

"Cambodia was a lush and beautiful place," says Schanberg, now 50, recalling his first visit in 1970. "There was an atmosphere of languor in the capital city, Phnom Penh, even though hostile Vietnamese troops were swirling around to the east and south of the city. Nobody was hungry. Buddhism was still in flower. Some nights after dinner you'd hire a pedicab—a cyclo-pousse—and peddle down the street, passing ladies of the night who would say, 'Bonsoir, Monsieur.' It all seemed terribly removed from the reality of war. But then things quickly changed."

In the months and years to follow, while the press corps focused most of its attention on neighboring Vietnam, the U.S. stepped up military aid to the ragtag Cambodian army and launched massive bombing raids against Communist sanctuaries in the countryside. Phnom Penh was transformed into a city of hungry refugees, with its population swelling from 600,000 to more than two million. "Cambodia was no longer in control of its own fate, and instead had become a piece of territory to be used by larger powers," says Schanberg, who dogged the story relentlessly. "In my mind, this was supreme tragedy in the making."

In April 1975 Khmer Rouge forces encircled Phnom Penh. The U.S. evacuated its embassy, and Schanberg made arrangements for Pran's wife, Ser Moeun, and their four children to be flown to safety. Meanwhile, despite warnings of a possible bloodbath, Schanberg and Pran decided to stay. "He looked at my face and I looked at his, and I can't tell you who decided what. But it was clear he was as obsessed as I was in seeing the story to the end," says Schanberg. "Most Cambodians we interviewed believed that when the Khmer Rouge had their victory, they would no longer engage in random brutality. No one could foresee they would empty entire cities and would kill anyone who wore glasses, or who admitted to having an education. It is also unthinkable to believe that someone is going to kill you. That is just not a thought you want to wrap your mind around."

After watching the last American helicopter leave, Schanberg and Pran worked day and night, speeding around Phnom Penh in two rented Mercedeses and camping out in the cable office at night to file stories. By the fourth night, as the boulevards filled with refugee bullock carts and fleeing soldiers, both men knew the city was about to fall. "It was totally chaotic," says Schanberg. "It wasn't just one area disrupted. All the spokes of the wheel were in turmoil. The night sky was lit up with tracer bullets as the Khmer Rouge continued shelling the city, and people everywhere were frightened and desperate. It was a vision of hell."

As the Khmer Rouge troops entered the city the next morning, Schanberg returned briefly to his hotel room to shower and shave. "I had one of those irrational spasms when I said to myself, 'I better be clean when I greet them so I can make a good impression.' " In the streets there was a temporary sense of renewed calm, with people waving white flags to greet the conquering revolutionaries. After a breakfast of Pepsi-Cola at a French restaurant, Schanberg and Pran, together with free-lance photographer Al Rockoff and British journalist Jon Swain, decided to risk a visit to the city's largest civilian hospital to get an idea of the number of casualties. "The wounded were lying everywhere," says Schanberg. "Only a handful of doctors had reported for duty, and a man with a mop carefully tried to clean up the blood around stiffening corpses in the corridor. After a while we just couldn't stay any longer."

As they started to leave the hospital compound, some heavily armed Khmer Rouge soldiers charged through the front gate. "We thought we were dead right there," says Schanberg. "These were real jungle troops—hardened men with dead eyes. Shouting and angry, they were banging guns into our heads and our stomachs. In all the years I've known Pran, it was the first time I saw raw fear on his face. He said, 'Do what they say, do what they say.' So I dropped everything—my camera, a blue Pan Am bag with my passport and notebooks, a change of clothes and several thousand dollars in escape money. Then they pushed us into the back of an armored personnel carrier. But Pran remained outside and we couldn't figure out what he was doing. I thought he was trying to persuade them to let him go, so I said, 'Why doesn't he get the hell in here? They'll kill him.' "

"The Khmer Rouge think I'm a driver—low-class people," recalls Pran. "They say, 'I don't want you, I want only the tomtoms—the big people.' I say, 'Please let me in because I know some of the language of these people.' I know this is real danger, but even if I get killed, I had to let them know we are not involved with the war."

Finally allowed into the personnel carrier, Pran continued chattering nonstop, pleading with the Khmer Rouge driver. "We didn't know where we were going," says Schanberg. "We couldn't tell direction. My only thought was, 'If I'm going to go, I'm not going to grovel. I'm not going to give up my dignity.' Then, after about an hour, this machine came to a halt and the back door was swung open. As the sunlight came in, I saw two men with their automatic weapons raised at their hips. Behind them was the Tonle Sap River, with bodies floating in the water. I figured, 'This was it, they are going to blow us away and roll us into the river.' But they didn't fire, and when we got out, Pran went straight for a guy who looked like he was in charge and kept begging for our lives."

Eventually Pran convinced their captors to send a motorcycle courier to Khmer Rouge headquarters in the center of the city, gambling that nobody higher up would order the execution. Two hours later, when the messenger returned, the soldiers lowered their weapons and announced to Pran that he and his friends were free to go.

Later that day Schanberg and Pran took refuge in the French Embassy, the last sanctuary in Phnom Penh for Westerners and their Cambodian friends. But soon a report swept the compound that the Khmer Rouge were ordering all Cambodians out of the embassy and into the countryside. Faced with repeated threats, the embassy officials yielded and all Cambodians were told to leave. "We got panicky and tried to fake a passport for Pran," says Schanberg. "But the French consul said, 'No one is going to believe this passport. They are going to look at this and realize something is wrong, and then we will all be at risk.' I waited a long time before telling Pran, and we didn't talk very much because there wasn't much to say. I said, 'Head right for the border to Thailand, and get a message out. I'll be there.' In the months and years to come, the scene of Pran passing through the gate of the embassy and out of sight became a recurring nightmare for me. I would lie awake, thinking of elaborate stratagems I might have used to keep him safe and with me."

Ten days after Pran disappeared into the interior of Cambodia with two million other refugees forced out of Phnom Penh, Schanberg prepared to leave for Thailand in the first of two truck convoys carrying 800 foreigners from the French Embassy. As he packed his bags, he noticed a discarded suitcase that would have been large enough for Pran to have crawled into. "I stood frozen for a moment looking at it, thinking I could have cut air holes in it for him," says Schanberg. "Then someone called to me, saying if I didn't hurry, I'd miss the convoy."

Schanberg rejoined his wife, Janice, and young daughters Jessica and Rebecca in Singapore, where he found them packed and ready to return to the U.S. for home leave. But it was several weeks before he could make the trip with his family and attempt to resume any kind of normal routine. "Being away for long periods of time had not made for a strong family life," says Schanberg. "At that point I wasn't able to address the strains in the marriage, and it eventually failed."

Taking a leave of absence from the Times to do a book about Cambodia, Schanberg took up residence briefly in Los Angeles, where his wife's family lived. "I was never able to complete the book because I couldn't concentrate on anything," says Schanberg. "I didn't see how I could go on without some news of Pran. So I wrote letters to relief agencies and friends in Thailand and printed up hundreds of pictures of him to send to people along the border. But it was like throwing arrows in the dark."

In the meantime Schanberg helped settle Pran's family in a home in San Francisco, where they had chosen to move because of the climate and the city's large Asian population. During his first visit Ser Moeun was disoriented and distraught. "It was very difficult because we both tried to avoid talking about Pran," says Schanberg. "Eventually she broke down and said, 'I thought when you come you bring Pran with you.' I stayed for several days and tried to give her hope. But I could not perform the ultimate miracle."

In the spring of 1976 Schanberg was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting of the fall of Phnom Penh. He accepted the award in Pran's behalf as well as his own. "I can't say I didn't feel good about winning the award," says Schanberg. "But at the same time it only served to remind me of one of my greatest failures because Pran wasn't there to enjoy it with me." Despite his continuing depression, Schanberg decided to return to the Times as an editor, and now writes a twice-weekly column on urban affairs for the paper.

On Oct. 4, 1979 Schanberg heard from the Times correspondent in Bangkok that Pran was alive and had escaped from Cambodia. It took an instant for the message to register. "Skyrockets went off in my head," says Schanberg. "I called Ser Moeun, but like a typical American housewife, she was out shopping for sheets at Sears. Instead I reached the eldest son, Titony, and blurted out the news. 'Hey, aaawwwriiight!' he shouted, as if someone had just thrown a touchdown pass. Then there was this great shouting and banging of pots and pans in the background."

Taking the first possible flight to Thailand, Schanberg headed straight for the Surin Refugee Camp and asked, "Where is my friend?" Someone fetched Pran, and the two men stood for a moment looking at each other. "He was weak and started hobbling toward me," says Schanberg. "Then he came running and wrapped his legs around my waist. We were both crying, and with his head on my shoulder the first thing he said was, 'You came, Syd. Oh, Syd, you came.' "

Later, with trepidation, Schanberg asked the question that had haunted him ever since he left Cambodia without Pran, "Can you forgive me?"

"I never blamed you," replied Pran. "I know your heart."

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