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International Week speaker shares his story of survival

May 16, 2007
By Jessica Cuffman; photos by Eric Kayne

Cambodian genocide survivor and New York Times photojournalist Dith Pran is grateful for the interest shown in his story by hundreds of Ohio University community members.

Dith Pran photos by Eric KaynePran, who has made it his life's mission to tell the world about what happened under the rule of the Khmer Rouge in the wake of the Vietnam War, presented the university's International Week keynote address Tuesday night to a capacity crowd in the Baker University Center Ballroom. An estimated two million Cambodians -- a quarter of the Southeast Asian nation's population -- were massacred by the regime between 1975 and 1979.

"I'm really glad to see all of you here tonight," he said, paying no attention to the stage and podium that had been readied for him, instead choosing to pace the floor close to his audience. "I suffered tremendously, but there are people willing to come here and listen, and together we can make a change and a difference.

"I knew this story needed to be told and others needed to be saved," he said, referencing the tragedy of genocide in Nazi Germany, Rwanda and Darfur. "We can't stop (genocide) completely, but we must learn how to do something. 

"You need a lot of letters. You need a lot of talk. You have to tell the politicians enough is enough," he said.

Putting his own quest into perspective, Pran said, "I'm not a hero or a politician. I'm a messenger." That's a role he has fulfilled since coming to the United States after surviving four years of torture that included starvation and 18-hour workdays in labor camps. Pran said he ate crickets, rats, grasshoppers and snakes. 

"One thing I never forgot was killing a snake that had just eaten a mouse so you could have two animals," he said. "We learned how to set traps for wolves. Cambodians didn't eat wolf."

Pran said the actions of the Khmer Rouge horrified the peace-loving people of Cambodia. 

"We lost so many people because we never thought Khmer Rough would do what they did -- killing children; killing students; killing priests," Pran said. "Cambodian people love each other so much. We respect the people, and we were shocked when the Khmer Rouge did not respect the Cambodian people.

"Some people gave up hope," he said. "I never gave up hope."

By the time he stepped to freedom in San Francisco in 1979, he had lost his father, brothers and a sister to the killings and his mother to malnutrition. In all, more than 50 of his relatives were killed. Only he and one of his sisters survived.

Dith Pran photos by Eric KaynePran's New York Times partner, writer Sydney Schanberg, escaped the country before Pran was forced into labor camps. In 1976, Schanberg accepted, in his and Pran's names, a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Cambodian genocide.

Schanberg's account, "The Death and Life of Dith Pran," published in 1980, became the basis of the Academy Award-winning film "The Killing Fields," which is being shown at 7 and 10 p.m. today in Baker Center Theater.

Prior to Pran's address, E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Director Tom Hodson presented Pran with the school's Carr Van Anda Award to honor his outstanding work as a journalist. "He has risked his own life to make sure the world knew about what was happening in Cambodia," Hodson said.

Pran's speech was sponsored by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, the International Student Union, the Andy Jung Endowment and the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.

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Published: Jul 20, 2006 3:50:00 PM
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