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Remembering Dith Pran

04/04/08 5:55PM By Chris Wren
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Former reporter and editor for the New York Times, commentator Chris Wren was patiently waiting for the first signs of spring to arrive in Thetford - when news came instead that took him back to old friends and far-away places.   

(WREN) From a snug farmhouse, it's easy to forget the world beyond the mud and potholes defining the horizons of early spring in Vermont. But I was jolted out of my rustic comforts the other day by news of an old colleague at the New York Times, where I'd been a foreign correspondent, reporter and editor.

Dith Pran won the affection of every journalist like me who ever covered a war. You'll know Dith Pran if you saw "The Killing Fields," the movie about war correspondents trapped in the genocidal violence of Cambodia. Pran was Cambodian, but calling him a stringer or interpreter does no justice to his magic. He took notes, pictures and physical risks for Sydney Schanburg, a Times correspondent covering the war in Cambodia. They became close as brothers, pooling their wits to survive.

When the Khmer Rouge overran Phnom Penh, in 1975, guerrillas took Sydney and some other reporters down a back alley to shoot as spies. Pran could have walked away, but he didn't.  Pran argued, pleaded, lied - that Sydney and the others were French journalists come to sing the praises of the Khmer Rouge. Pran bargained for their lives at the risk of his own, until the death squad let them go free.

When Sydney was evacuated to Thailand, Pran was left behind, over Sydney's protests. He vanished into the whirlwind of desperate Cambodians. Nearly two million would be butchered by the Khmer Rouge.

Fast forward to 1979. Word reached New York that Pran had surfaced in a refugee camp on the Thai border. Sydney was on the next flight. He found Pran, scarred and emaciated, but with the same old smile. He had survived the killing fields disguised as a peasant, toiling as slave labor in the rice paddies. It took four years for Pran to escape.  Sydney tried to apologize for losing him, but Pran refused to hear it. "Nothing to forgive," he said.

I was reporting from Moscow when Pran vanished, and from Cairo when Pran surfaced. We finally met in New York, when Pran was assigned as a photographer for a story I was doing. He greeted me so warmly that I felt like the most important person in his life. But everything he saw seemed to delight Pran. He was a joy to work with. Only later did I learn that he devoted his nights and weekends in a relentless campaign to document the human toll of the Cambodian holocaust.

Last month I learned that Pran was in a hospital in New Jersey. He wanted us to know he had terminal cancer of the pancreas, to make the rest of us get early checkups. Having given so much to others, Pran departed with the same courage that had graced his remarkable survival.

Shortly before he died, Pran told a reporter at his bedside that we just rent our bodies to house our spirits. When termites fill up the house, Pran said, it's time for the spirit to leave.
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