Sydney Schanberg, who reported on the terror of the Khmer Rouge, has died of a heart attack in New York. He was one of few Western journalists to stay behind when Cambodia fell to the brutal dictatorship.
Sydney Schanberg, the New York Times correspondent known for his coverage of the horrors of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime has died at the age of 82, the newspaper confirmed on Saturday. Schanberg's experiences in the 1970s alongside Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran were later retold in the Oscar-winning film "The Killing Fields."
"A restive, intense, Harvard-educated newspaperman with bulldog tenacity, Mr. Schanberg was a nearly ideal foreign correspondent: a risk-taking adventurer who distrusted officials, relied on himself … and wrote vividly of political and military tyrants," the Times wrote of the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who wrote for the daily for 26 years.
Refusal to evacuate after Pol Pot takeover
In April of 1975, with the Communist Party of Kampuchea (better known as the Khmer Rouge) and its leader Pol Pot on the cusp of taking over Cambodia, Western news outlets began pulling their staff out of the country. Schanberg ignored the New York Times' call to evacuate, making Schanberg one of the very few Western journalists to stay in Phnom Penh after the city had fallen.
Schanberg wrote later that initially, there was hope that Khmer Rouge rule would be an improvement on the five years of brutal civil war that had preceded it.
Instead, the journalist found himself reporting on the "maniacal Khmer Rouge guerrillas" who would eventually systematically torture and murder professionals, intellectuals, former government officials, non-ethnic Cambodians and Cambodian Christians, as well as urbanites who would not conform to their utopian agrarian vision for the country.
Schanberg and Dith Pran were captured and threatened with death, and were only saved after Dith's extensive pleas landed them a refuge in the French Embassy. When Schanberg was released from Phnom Penh into Thailand two weeks later, he wrote of the "massacres and fires, of streets and roads littered with bodies, of forced marches that turned the city overnight into a graveyard," as the Times put it.
As a native Cambodian, Dith was forced to stay behind as Schanberg was rescued.
'The Killing Fields'
Some two million people, more than 21 percent of the country's population, died in the mass killings, starvation, and slave labor that followed as the Khmer Rouge encountered little resistance from Western governments afraid of involvement in Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War.
In 1984, Schanberg's book about his experiences alongside Dith Pran were turned in the acclaimed film "The Killing Fields," which is also noted for its use of Khmer Rouge labor camp survivor Haing S. Ngor in an Oscar-winning performance as Dith.
Dith and Schanberg reunited in 1980 and the Cambodian was also employed by the New York Times. He died of pancreatic cancer in the US in 2008.
Cambodia was not the first time Schanberg was recognized for his fearless reporting. He won the George Polk Award twice, in 1971 for covering the Pakistani genocide in what is now Bangladesh, and in 1974 for his work on the Vietnam War.
Schanberg died of a heart attack on Tuesday in Poughkeepsie, New York, a close friend told the Times. He is survived by his wife, Jane Freiman, and Jessica and Rebecca, his daughters with his first wife, Janice Sakofsky.