They are middle-aged men, with children, but when they speak of each other, in the war they covered together 10 years ago, it is in a language eerily like that of lovers.
Here is the westerner, Sydney Schanberg, talking about his Cambodian translator and assistant, Dith Pran, during the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge in the spring of 1975: "For all the obvious cultural differences, we were functioning pretty much as one person at the time."
Here is Dith Pran, a tour guide by training, talking about the time he risked his life to argue for the life of Syd Schanberg: "When I save him, at that time, in my mind he's like a brother."
He is quite passionate, his voice raised as loudly as it will get in a conversation that spans the destruction of his country, the death of 3 million people and much of his family.
"We go together all a year, and then shall I let him stay alone, because we become one body . . . You don't have time to say what danger or not, just say, 'This is my brother, I got to do this' . . . Now half your body go into danger, so what you going to do? I come right quick . . ."
"There's not much rational about this," Schanberg says. The Thing Itself
It was a famous magazine piece, a story of friendship and sacrifice and war. It is now "The Killing Fields," a film. It tells the story of a Cambodian who saves the life of his American friend and employer, a newspaperman, and the newspaperman who afterward is unable to keep his friend safe. It was their lives. How can you reduce to a few sentences the complexities of their lives, Schanberg wants to know? How can you attempt, now, to put reasons on actions that were so entirely of the moment?
He says this in his office at The New York Times, where he writes a column on urban affairs and where Pran is now a staff photographer. Schanberg is 50, and while he was known, during his time as an editor, to relieve deadline tension by blowing on a party horn, he has overall an air of seriousness and intensity, a tendency toward semantics, to rephrase a question for you or, better still, to tell you what you should have asked. Pran is 42 and has some difficulty with the language, his sentences often including the phrase "in my heart."
Both look hearty enough, Schanberg a good-sized man, Pran a more delicately built 110 pounds, but they are no longer walking examples of perfect health. Schanberg had open heart surgery last year, not surprising for a fellow who by all reports is a classic Type A who distinguished himself during his stay in Southeast Asia as much by his temper as his tenacity. Pran, for his part, has had problems with his teeth -- four more will be pulled this month -- and sometimes with his skin, particularly on his feet. "The dirty water," he says, referring to his four years of forced labor in the rice fields of his mother country. "All kind of excrement . . . no soap for four years, no toothbrush for four years . . . many times, I had malaria."
Which gets us to the thing itself.
In 1972 Sydney Schanberg, leaving his wife and two young daughters at their home base in Singapore, arrives in Cambodia for The New York Times and comes to work with a translator named Dith Pran. They are from two different ends of the universe, Schanberg a Harvard scholarship student from Massachusetts who worked his way up from copy boy to foreign correspondent, and Pran, born near the famous Angkor Temples in northwestern Cambodia, his marriage arranged according to tradition, the son of a self-taught engineer. Pran, by accounts of some correspondents, is a gentle and generous man. Schanberg is driven, competitive and temperamental -- he yells if his copy is not the first transmitted to the home office, refuses to show his stories to other reporters even after they are published, screams quite openly at Pran. The temper always had to do with work.
"Most of us would scream and yell in our room, but he'd do it right there at the front desk," says one reporter. "Sometimes you'd just see him stalking from the parking lot behind the hotel -- he'd be screaming at Pran when he got out of the car, screaming at him at the desk, then dismissing him like an aide . . . On the other hand, when things went well, he would give him outrageous tips, hundreds in bonuses -- he was very effusive."
His copy, the same reporter says, was considered "wonderful . . . you loved the sense of outrage he brought to a story." Now considered by some the conscience of The Times, particularly in his columns on the homeless, Schanberg's reporting then was also conspicuous in its humanity. "He committed himself to a war in Cambodia when nobody else cared about Cambodia," says Peter Osnos, a one-time competitor from The Washington Post. Pran admires him too.
"He's not like other journalists -- he respect my opinion," he will say years later, privately. "He let me read his articles, and if I don't like, we discuss, and sometimes he change, sometimes no . . . He know about Cambodian tradition, he put the hands up, how to respect people, to speak politely, because I teach him the Cambodian way."
But it's been said he used to kick you, Pran.
"I wish you would not print that," he says. "It will make him very sad. It is true, I cannot lie to you, but he is not like that anymore. He is calmed down . . . Before, he have many things on his head, and also he is young and there are many technical problems when you are covering a war in another country . . .
"I know this guy, his heart is different, his temper is different, he born that way, you have to tolerate him. When post office don't work, he get so mad and blame me, but later he come to me and say, 'Pran, I really feel sorry, can you forgive me? I got so pissed off' . . . It's hard to explain why I don't get mad, but I know him so well . . . make him sick because he know he did wrong."
A final explanation.
"This guy, his heart is too tight," Pran says. "When you see a wounded soldier, he have a tear sometimes, he cannot even write. He is involved too much."
They spend time together, often to the exclusion of other journalists. The American-backed Cambodian government begins to lose to the Communists. In April 1975 the Communists move in on Phnom Penh and the American Embassy evacuates its people. Through Schanberg's intervention, Pran's wife and four children are also flown out. Pran remains -- and his remaining, in the film, is attributed by one journalist to Schanberg's desire for him to remain.
On April 17 the Khmer Rouge take the city. Schanberg and Pran, as is their habit, go to the city's largest hospital to try to determine casualties, accompanied by two journalists and their driver. As they are attempting to leave, they are, with the exception of Pran, arrested by heavily armed soldiers and loaded into a van. Pran argues with their captors. The western journalists believe he is arguing for his freedom. Their Cambodian driver explains he is not -- he is arguing to join them, because he knows they have no chance without him. Later, by arguing that they were foreigners who had come to report on the Khmer victory, Pran would save their lives.
The city is evacuated, the wounded forced out of hospitals. Schanberg and Pran, and their two Cambodian drivers, Hea and Sarun, seek refuge in the French Embassy. It is becoming clear that the country's new rulers intend to return to a peasant society, that "intellectuals," or professionals, are at risk. That evening the Khmer Rouge announce that all Cambodians must leave the embassy. Hea and Sarun, with money from Schanberg, leave the next day, covertly. Schanberg attempts to make a false passport for Pran. The French spot it as an obvious fake and insist that it will jeopardize the entire compound. Pran is forced out.
He says what his character says in the film, at that moment, is what he said to Schanberg: "Take care of my family, Sydney. Don't let anyone be mean to my wife." Of Creeps and Staying On
Was Sydney Schanberg as much of a creep in person as he is on the screen?
It is to a Type A's credit to address a question like that calmly.
"I can't answer the question because it's somebody else's perception," Schanberg begins. "I think that the movie is a rough one, and, uh, it portrays a very determined and abrasive and whatever reporter, but if that is somebody's first question coming out of the movie, they've missed the point . . .
"I don't think any film provides every piece of a human being, but I think the movie is accurate and fair in portraying that part of me . . . The three things I insisted on in first discussion with this movie was that it had to be about real Cambodians, and to tell the story of Cambodia, and to portray me honestly, not as a plaster saint, because I was a person with warts, who made decisions and made mistakes and tried to live with them later."
What happens to Dith Pran after he leaves the embassy, in the four years before he makes his escape to Thailand: He is beaten to near death, suffers malaria, works 14 hours a day, at times lives on a spoonful of rice and, to supplement his diet, kills a grasshopper or snake or sucks on the skin of water buffaloes. His father dies of starvation, three brothers and an uncle are shot, his sister and her daughter are killed because his sister is married to an officer. People disappear all around him. When the nightmares come, years later, when he is safe in America, this will be the main one: "When they pull someone to death in front of me, because I was so scared to death, and sometimes it's you in there -- that's my nightmare."
What happens to Sydney Schanberg: He eventually returns to the States. He tries to write a book about his experiences but is unable to do so. He writes hundreds of letters in an attempt to find Pran and takes on much of the expense of caring for Pran's wife and family. His own marriage ultimately unravels. He wins a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting and accepts in the name of Pran. He does not have nightmares now, he says, but "while time has created some distance, on every occasion when either I pick up a piece of copy or have seen the film, it has the same impact."
Why did they both stay on in Cambodia? And to what extent did Schanberg's desire to stay on -- though he claims decisions were made independently -- affect the often acquiescent Pran?
"I was doing journalism for three years, no, five years, and then Sydney and I both got the same idea to cover the story," says Pran. "I decide to stay first because I didn't believe when one side come up they kill their own civilians, and also because the people I used to visit to cover the story didn't get panicked, so why should I get panicked . . . I didn't know there was going to be bloodbath."
He knew that Sydney wanted him to stay?
"I knew, but also myself I wanted to stay. I had the same idea," says Pran.
"These questions are difficult to answer because they are not questions you pose to yourself during the situation, and the only way you can pose it is after the fact and you never get a satisfactory answer," says Schanberg, in the manner of a columnist. "You do these things in a situation of stress . . . you just do what viscerally makes total sense for you to do, you don't stop to think much about the full nature of your acts at all . . . What Pran and I had said was that if we were not feeling any personal need we should stay . . .
"But maybe you're asking the wrong question . . . Why wouldn't the question be, 'Why wouldn't you not stay?' And for us, we were involved in that situation not just as a story, but we spent every day going to refugee camps and visiting soldiers in the front lines and it just becomes part of your bloodstream . . . I think it just made total sense for us to stay, and I think that for all the obvious cultural differences, we were functioning pretty much as one person. It would be very hard for us to say where one person left off and the other began.
"It's culturally insulting to ask why Pran chose to stay," he says after a time. ". . . The assumption is that the westerner is in charge and that the assistant, because he was an assistant and comes from a country with a colonial history, would do anything the westerner wants him to do."
But in this case, the westerner was in charge.
"Yes, but the assumption that just because I was in charge I would put a life at stake is a fundamental mistake," says Schanberg.
But he has written about feeling responsible for Pran.
"I was responsible for him in the same way that he was responsible for me," Schanberg says. "His responsibility for me led him to argue his way into that tank . . . I think that was because it was unthinkable for him to be separated from me, just as his forced departure from the embassy was unthinkable for me. Part of his decision I think was instinct, and sheer loyalty and courage, but I don't think any human act like that is ever so clear-cut that it doesn't have lots of little pieces, and one of those little pieces was that he was on the street, alone and isolated, and without us, without me, it was something totally missing."
Did Pran feel the same?
"I want to tell you that I know he feel himself that he didn't help me enough when I was in the embassy, but for me, I know that him and other journalist try to save me," he says. "He try his best from one step to another to save me, but it doesn't work. And when I save him, at that time, in my mind he's like a brother . . . That's why I try to get him, because I know without me, those Khmer Rouge, they will accuse them of being CIA. It come into my head right away, you don't know what's danger and what is not, just say, 'This is my brother, I got to do this.' "
"You say relationships are unequal, and they are," says Schanberg. "To me, our choice was to try to save one person. We knew if we went to the French with a whole bunch of people we'd have no chance, so we went to the drivers and we gave them escape money. We did the triage . . . we made choices, all of us, we left people behind. The extreme word is 'abandoned' people . . .
"There were women married to Cambodian men in that embassy who were never going to see them again saying goodbye, and the men saying, 'Courage, cherie' . . . We were going to try to save Pran, but there was no way we were going to save a dozen people, because the French had a limited amount of passports or tolerance or whatever. Or courage."
They speak in turn, describing their feelings at the moment Pran was forced to go.
"I don't think about Sydney . . . I know Sydney will be all right, family will be all right . . . You don't think backward anymore," Pran says. "You just thinking ahead, now you in risky situation -- you life, if you little bit left, little bit right, you get killed. So that's what you say, from now on you have to forget what behind you, keep the way you watch the people, what they can get away from the Khmer Rouge."
"It had to be the worst day of my life," he says. Of Fathers and Heart
"I think we romanticized each other," Schanberg is saying, the two of them together in his office. "I think we know each other better now . . . You know, one of the things we found out later was that we were having the same daydreams . . . I would come in a helicopter and save him . . . Now we see each other more clearly, as human beings with strengths and flaws."
So what are Schanberg's flaws, Pran?
"I don't have anything seriously," he says. "Sometimes his mouth comes differently, but his heart is still the same."
And his strengths?
"He always answers all the letters," says Pran.
Schanberg laughs a little, one of those this is my best? laughs. Pran soberly sticks to his guns.
"I couldn't do," Pran says. "He feels compelled. His heart wants to tell the people he reads their letters."
And Pran's flaws and strengths, Schanberg?
"I don't think I want to answer," he says.
The talk turns to growing up, of Pran's father, now dead, and of Schanberg's.
"He was a very religious man, very quiet. He helped the children," Pran says of a man who for most of his lifetime saw his country ruled by outsiders. "He want my life to be better, he want to see all the children good children . . . He's not really brave about war -- he scared about fighting, not like me, I am more courageous. He didn't say anything, but I could tell he was frightened."
Where did Pran's bravery come from?
"My curiosity pushed me," he says. "To see what is happening in the fighting with the people."
And Schanberg's father?
An uncharacteristic expression, down-to-earth.
"Still alive at 94, knock on wood," he says. "He was a grocer . . . He saw me on the Supreme Court because I went to law school for three months. I don't think he ever totally comprehended what I did."
Why does he answer all his mail, by the way?
"That's getting into parlor psychology," Schanberg begins, and, after awhile, "I think I identify with people who are left out. I don't know.
"I grew up in a town, I had a lot of advantages, and yet I suppose because it was a small Jewish community, inside there was a feeling of being outside the mainstream of things. And I think what came out of that is, I began to care about people if I felt they were outside . . .
"My father did a lot of favors for people, and still does," he says. "He's given them credit and made it possible for some people to get through some very hard times . . . He has a very soft heart . . . He'd always complain about it, but he'd keep on doing it, so I always had the feeling the complaints weren't real."
Does this sound familiar to Pran?
He answers merely by smiling.