Dith Pran has just died at age 65, of pancreatic cancer. For those for whom the name doesn’t ring a bell, his story was told in the outstanding 1984 film The Killing Fields, and is recapped in the news coverage of his death. The film is very moving and disturbing, but Dith, who coined the phrase “The Killing Fields” to refer to what he saw on his 40-mile trek out of Cambodia, says, “It’s worse than what you saw.” Dith called himself a one-man crusade against genocide, and started The Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project to “Spread the Word of the Cambodian Genocide.” In addition to a good story and obituary, the New York Times has produced a brief video from their interview with him less than two weeks ago.
The content of Dith Pran’s book, Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors is made obvious by the title — it is intended to show how children are victims of genocide. Pran crusaded against genocide, and two years ago gave a talk (80 minutes, including 20 minutes of Q&A), “Genocide, the Curse of the 21st Century” (YouTube link). He questions whether we are making any great strides to end genocide.
Indeed, Genocide is not a recent idea — reread the book of Esther. The Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur… to name just a few. The phrase “never again” continues to be uttered, but perhaps we don’t know its meaning… or it’s one we just don’t seem to hear. I wonder if genocide, like the poor, is something that will always be with us. The question is not one of resignation, but one implying our efforts to stop it are woefully inadequate. Regardless, it is clear that whether or not we accomplish the goal of eradicating both, we must make the effort. “Do something — it’s always better than ‘do nothing.'” Pran says that the public must act first, and when politicians see that the public are aware of the issue, then they will start to care too. The fact that genocide continues is testimony to the reality that we are doing far too little to stop it. As was said of news coverage out of Rwanda, “people will say, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible!’ and then go on eating their dinner.” We understand too little and we accept too much.
Dith said, “There is no doctor who can heal me, but I know a man like Pol Pot, he is even sicker than I am… We both have the horror in our heads. In Cambodia, the killer and the victim have the same disease.”
The world has lost another hero, leaving yet another void in a struggle that has too many gaps already. “One time is too many,” he said in the NYT interview, expressing hope that others would continue his work. “If they can do that for me, my spirit will be happy.”