Obituary: Sydney Schanberg
US journalist whose reports on the horrors of war-ravaged Cambodia inspired movie The Killing Fields
Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30
Sydney Schanberg, who has died aged 82, was one of America's outstanding foreign correspondents of the last 50 years; his reporting from Cambodia and his friendship with his translator, Dith Pran, formed the basis for the Oscar-winning film, The Killing Fields.
Sydney Hillel Schanberg was born on January 17, 1934, and grew up at Clinton, Massachusetts, where his father ran a small grocery shop. Schanberg went to Harvard on a scholarship, graduating in 1955. In 1956, he was drafted, and served with the US Army in Germany, where he wrote regularly for a military newspaper.
In 1959, he was hired by the The New York Times as a copy boy and rose quickly through the organisation, making his reputation covering New York's notoriously corrupt state legislature. He was promoted to the foreign desk in 1969 and named Delhi bureau chief.
A heavy-smoking, "shoe- leather" reporter, Schanberg covered the brief Indian-Pakistan war of 1971, itself part of the Bangladesh war of independence. That conflict, with its mass atrocities against civilians, was a foretaste of what Schanberg would report on when he was reassigned to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
By then the Vietnam War had spilled over that nation's borders, engulfing the entire region of southeast Asia. Cambodia had been bombed by the US in 1970 and its society was badly destabilised.
The Khmer Rouge, a peasant army with links to the North Vietnamese, began slowly to take over the countryside. They had already established themselves as a terrifying outfit by April 1975, when they reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh. In other parts of the country, city dwellers, members of the professional classes, had been force marched into the country to labour in the fields. Many died or were summarily executed.
The danger was enormous and many western journalists left the city. Schanberg elected to stay in Phnom Penh with his translator, fixer and friend, Dith Pran.
"Our decision to stay," Schanberg later recalled, "was founded on our belief - perhaps, looking back, it was more a devout wish or hope - that when the Khmer Rouge won their victory, they would have what they wanted and would end the terrorism and brutal behaviour we had written so often about."
The pair were detained by some teenage Khmer Rouge and only Pran's quick thinking saved their lives. Schanberg decided to leave but was unable to get Pran out with him.
His first report after reaching safety described the scene he left behind: "Two million people suddenly moved out of the city in stunned silence - walking, bicycling, pushing cars that had run out of fuel, covering the roads like a human carpet."
His Cambodian friend ended up among them and surviving what would become a genocide: two million Cambodians died during the course of the next four years at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, whose slogan, which Schanberg often quoted, was: "To spare you is no profit; to destroy you, no loss."
Back in New York, Schanberg was honoured with the Pulitzer Prize for his courage in staying at his post. But he was tortured by guilt that he had left his friend behind. His wife, Jane Freiman, would recall that he did not return to being himself until he was reunited with Pran.
This happened three years later when Pran escaped Cambodia and Schanberg rescued him from a refugee camp in Thailand. He then arranged for Pran to work as a photographer at the The New York Times. Pran died of cancer in 2008.
Schanberg's account of their relationship became the basis of the film The Killing Fields. The film, directed by Roland Joffe and starring Sam Waterston as Schanberg, was released in 1984 and won three Academy Awards.
Schanberg by then was metropolitan editor at the The New York Times, and also wrote a regular column about the city for the paper's op-ed page. He championed ordinary people against the city's empire building real estate developers but this brought him into conflict with his newspaper's publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger.
The qualities that made Schanberg a great journalist made him a difficult employee. Told that he would no longer be writing his column, he left the paper and moved on to Newsday, a tabloid, where he carried on writing about the struggles of ordinary people against the real estate industry. He also became interested in the issue of American soldiers listed as missing in action but who some believed were still held in Vietnamese prison camps.
In his later years, he was a mentor to younger reporters, a cigar-smoking, gruff paterfamilias, who taught them the virtues of impoliteness and not waiting for telephone calls to be returned.
Schanberg, who died on July 9, is survived by his wife and two daughters from his first marriage.