The death this year of Sydney Schanberg, who became famous for his reporting on the Cambodian War, reminds me of an email conversation that I had with him a few years ago.
I told Sydney that I wanted to write something about the “fixers,” Cambodians hired locally, usually on a day-to-day basis, to help us find the shifting “front line” in the Cambodian War.
More important in many cases, their job was also to get us back safely from the war to the capital city of Phnom Penh.
The war in Cambodia lasted from the spring of 1970 until April of 1975, and Schanberg stayed in Phnom Penh until the end.
Schanberg, then with The New York Times, became widely known after his story and that of his fixer, Dith Pran, inspired the 1984 movie titled “The Killing Fields.”
Dith Pran, who was portrayed by the Cambodian-born actor Haing Ngor, was the key Cambodian figure in the movie.
Schanberg had encouraged me to write about the fixers, and now after several years, as I come to the end of a long career as both a reporter and an editor, I’m finally doing so.
The most dangerous moments for the fixers in Cambodia came when the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975.
Foreign correspondents who stayed behind for the fall of Phnom Penh were able to seek sanctuary in the French embassy in the Cambodian capital.
But most of the fixers were on their own. Dith Pran was one of them. He was also one of the few who managed to avoid being executed by the Khmer Rouge after they captured Phnom Penh. He did so by passing himself off as an uneducated peasant.
As far as I could tell, the Khmer Rouge killed everyone whom they could find who had worked for foreigners.
I agree with the British journalist Ruth Fowler, who wrote in October of last year, that fixers are “the true unsung heroes of conflict reporting.”
Then as now, fixers run risks equal to those of any war correspondent but in most cases without life insurance or an evacuation plan to get them out of trouble when battlefield conditions become dangerous enough to offer a choice between life and death.
The word “fixer” vastly understates their role. Many of them serve as drivers and interpreters, and that requires skills not always easily available in developing countries at war, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
When I think of fixers, I think of the wars in Cambodia and Vietnam, which I covered on and off between 1966 and 1975, up until the fall of Saigon on April 29, 1975.
To give an idea of what Cambodian fixers could do, I’ll cite an example:
On April 6, 1970, early in the war in Cambodia, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops had been attacking the inexperienced Cambodian Army in the Parrot’s Beak area of eastern Cambodia.
I was working as a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor at the time and had teamed up with a veteran reporter, Woody Dickerman of Newsday.
Our driver was a small, wiry Vietnamese-Cambodian who spoke both the Vietnamese and Khmer languages and had a good sense of danger—and how to avoid it.
At a briefing for reporters in the town of Chipou, a Cambodian colonel had vowed to stop what had become an almost daily retreat by the Cambodian Army. He said his troops would clear a Viet Cong roadblock located just east of Chipou. The roadblock was a burned-out, abandoned car in the middle of the road.
So I approached a Cambodian paratroop captain and told him that we intended to watch his troops clear the roadblock. He responded that his troops weren’t moving up the road. They were pulling back.
Sensing danger and acting on his own, our driver immediately got into the Mercedes that we had rented for the day and drove some 50 to 100 yards up the road to fetch Dickerman, who stood next to a rice field taking pictures.
The driver shoved Dickerman, a heavy-set man weighing more than 200 pounds, into the Mercedes, spun the car around, and roared back to where I was located.
Two American photographers—one of them, Sean Flynn, son of the actor Errol Flynn—disappeared up the road near the Viet Cong roadblock that day. It turned out that they were hoping to see the war from the other side.
But they never came back alive. They were believed to have been killed by the Khmer Rouge, whom the Vietnamese Communists were backing at the time.
As far as I know, out of the six or seven fixers with whom I worked in Cambodia, only two survived, one of them by fleeing into a forest when he was about to be stabbed and then both of them by making their way to a refugee camp near the Thai border.
I myself got out of Phnom Penh a few weeks before the Khmer Rouge captured the city on April 17, 1975. I thought that the fall of Saigon would come soon and felt that I needed to cover that story.
It was not until May of 2010 during a reunion of war reporters and photographs in Phnom Penh that I discovered that two of my Cambodian colleagues had survived.
At first I was delighted to see my old driver and interpreter Kong Vorn, now more than 70 years old, and to hear about an organization that he had founded to build a school in Prey Veng, Cambodia’s poorest province.
But my elation was quickly followed by feelings of guilt and shame. I had thought that there was no way that any of these “fixers” could have survived.
Once the Khmer Rouge regime fell and Cambodia opened up again, I never thought to look for my former Cambodian colleagues.
Sydney Schanberg himself once described feeling overwhelmed with guilt for having to leave behind his constant companion Dith Pran after he and other foreigners were evacuated from Phnom Penh.
In 2010, I placed an ad in Cambodia’s most widely read newspaper asking if anyone knew the whereabouts of one of my favorite fixers, the man who had gotten Woody Dickerman and myself out of trouble in the spring of 1975.
Not surprisingly, I got no response to that ad.
Shortly before the fall of Saigon came on April 29, 1975, I was able to arrange or help arrange for several South Vietnamese to get out of the country on U.S. Marine helicopters.
But I was unable to persuade my old interpreter and one of the best of the fixers whom I knew to leave. He was convinced that the Communists would do him no harm because he was relatively poor. He was wrong. He was interrogated and beaten up and finally had to flee a few years later by boat.
Shanberg set a high standard in dealing with Dith Pran. In 1979, once the Khmer Rouge were defeated through an invasion by Vietnam, Pran escaped from Cambodia into Thailand and quickly reunited with Schanberg. Schanberg then helped Pran to get a job as a photographer at The New York Times.
For a brief period in 1970 I had the privilege of working in wartime Cambodia with Dith Pran, but I was being paid by the story rather than getting a steady income and couldn’t provide him with the regular income that he needed to maintain himself and his family until the end of his days.
Schanberg did it right.
Dan Southerland, formerly RFA’s executive editor, is an RFA contributor.