Sunday, February 15, 2009
By Karen Lee Ziner
Journal Staff Writer
In April of 1975, as the Khmer Rouge advanced on Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, Titony Dith saw the rocket attacks and dead and wounded people lying on the streets. He was just a boy.
That was shortly before the Khmer Rouge captured his famous father, Dith Pran, whose story was immortalized in the film The Killing Fields. Dith Pran died of cancer last year, before Khmer Rouge leaders could be brought to trial.
“He would love to have seen the Khmer Rouge brought to justice,” said Titony Dith, 44, in a phone interview from his home in Virginia. “Before he became sick, he told me he’d like to see the trial go on, and for the Khmer Rouge to be brought to justice for all the people who died under the brutal regime of Pol Pot.”
Dith Pran had ties in Rhode Island’s Cambodian community — one of the largest in the country –– and made numerous visits here, including to speak about the Khmer Rouge holocaust. After his death, Cambodians here said that if not for Dith Pran, the world might not have recognized their suffering.
“He tried to volunteer his time to educate the American public about some of the things he’d seen,” said Titony Dith. His father tried to relate his own experience and the agony suffered by fellow Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge, “being tortured and having their lives turned upside down in misery.”
“He would have just liked to see justice being done, so this thing will never, never happen again, not just to Cambodia but to other places around the world,” he said.
Dith Pran was a Cambodian photojournalist and assistant to New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg when the Khmer Rouge seized the capital. He put his family on one of the last rescue helicopters to leave the country, and was soon captured by the Khmer Rouge. He disappeared for the next four years, until he made his way to a refugee camp at the Thai-Cambodian border.
After he was reunited with his family and Schanberg, The Times hired Dith Pran as a photographer.
Titony Dith, who works in information technology at the Pentagon, remembers the evacuation.
“I was on one of the last Chinook helicopters to leave the [U.S.] Embassy compound. He was there to say goodbye, and Sydney was there, too. And just like the movie, we ran to the helicopter and after that, we never saw my father again for a long time.”
He added, “I remember we went to pick him up at the San Francisco International Airport. He’d lost some teeth and he was just crying and happy to see all of us. He said everything’s all gone in Cambodia during that time, because the Khmer Rouge had turned Cambodia upside down. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. I didn’t know there were mass killings or mass graves, and that people were being tortured to death.”
Titony Dith said he will “watch and see what happens” as the first trial gets under way. “I hope that justice will be served for the people who committed these atrocities. I’d like to see them put behind bars, forever.”