The Profile

Before The Killing Fields, Sydney Schanberg gave voice to victims of another war

July 11, 2016
Photo: Sydney Schanberg poses for photographers after speaking to reporters in New York on Thursday

The former New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg will forever be associated with Cambodia, and for good reason. It was there that he chronicled the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh in 1975, and it was there that he befriended Dith Pran, forming a personal and professional bond that inspired the award-winning 1984 film The Killing Fields.

After Dith Pran survived the ruthless Khmer Rouge regime, the two were reunited, and Schanberg helped Pran get a job as a photographer at the Times. As recently as 2013, Schanberg testified at the war crimes tribunal for senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge via video link from New York.* When the famous reporter died on Saturday at 82, the headline of the Times obituary read: “Former Times correspondent Chronicled Terror of 1970s Cambodia.”

But the obituary made no mention of another country dear to Schanberg: Bangladesh. Before his career-changing experiences in Phnom Penh–he would win a Pulitzer Prize with Dith Pran, not to mention enduring fame from the movie–he was the South Asia bureau chief for the Times, based in Delhi. Far from a young reporter just starting out, he had worked at the newspaper full-time since 1960, joining the foreign staff in 1969. In his late 30s at this point, he was destined for Poland when the job came up in India. The Times obituary glosses over his experience in South Asia in one sentence: “He covered India’s 13-day war with Pakistan in 1971.”

That war was, of course, over Bangladesh, whose independence struggle India  ultimately backed with military training. Formerly “East Pakistan,” part of the territory apportioned to the new Pakistani state following partition in 1947, Bangladesh was born out of great violence. Though statistics are disputed, the CIA estimated that at least 200,000 Bengalis died as a result of the Pakistani military’s crackdown, which commenced in March of 1971. Schanberg got an up close and personal look at the carnage, sending back dispatch after dispatch to his paper, angering both the Pakistanis–who wanted to cover up their violent suppression–and the Indians, who didn’t want their support for the independence fighters so widely known. He sucked up to nobody. As Gary Bass details in his excellent book The Blood Telegram, one Indian official colorfully wondered how “well-meaning” correspondents like Schanberg could be “tackled.”

Pakistan wasn’t so diplomatic. Schanberg was kicked out of Bangladesh twice, first in late March of 1971, before the fighting really started in Dhaka, and then a few months later after he was let back in as part of an absurd PR attempt. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh have majority Muslim populations, which pitted religion against nationalism. But because of India’s proximity, minority Hindus living in Bangladesh were targeted with severity. “It was a genocide,” Schanberg told Bass, recalling the way the Pakistanis singled out Hindu houses by marking them, and reporting that the army painted yellow H’s on Hindu shops in town, conjuring the Holocaust. Schanberg interviewed people who said the army would “come through yelling, ‘Are there any Hindus there?’ When they found out there were, they would kill them.” It is difficult to read that and not see parallels with the religiously motivated violence still plaguing Bangladesh to this day, specifically the ISIS-inspired attack on a bakery in Dhaka this month, in which non-Muslims were separated from Muslims in order to be killed.

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When Schanberg wasn’t in Dhaka, he was in India covering the stream of refugees fleeing into “West Bengal,” the Bengali-speaking territory that remained part of India after partition. He was allowed by the Indians to see the training of the Mukti Bahini, the Bengali liberation forces. In one of the more harrowing parts of Bass’s book, Schanberg recalls going on a raid with the rebels. Some of these budding independence fighters were young and barefoot. When they saw some Pakistani soldiers, they told Schanberg to get down before firing on them. “All I really remember was that they hit a man, who had been standing up. When you hit someone, the body goes up, and then comes down. That’s what he did,” Schanberg told Bass. “I could see they were showing off for me…I knew they were doing it to show me that they were doing their jobs.” He finally told them, “That’s enough.” Not long after the war between India and Pakistan in late 1971, Schanberg moved to Southeast Asia, where things were heating up in Vietnam and Cambodia.

On a reporting trip to Bangladesh last year–about a week before an Italian national would be killed by Islamists in the same area as the bakery, kicking off a series of attacks against foreigners there–I met a professor at Dhaka University who showed me a tree planted by US Senator Ted Kennedy. Kennedy is another figure whose involvement with and support for Bangladesh went largely unmentioned outside of the country after his death in 2009. The tree was massive and dominated one of the entrances to the campus. Dhaka University was the site of massacres by the Pakistani army in 1971, but it was quiet and peaceful when I visited. The tree was one of the most poignant reminders of the struggle, and has to be one of the few living monuments to the dead.

Schanberg’s contributions are harder to see, but they are no less important. His dispatches, along with the work of other brave journalists of the era, gave Bangladeshi victims a voice on the world stage. They have not forgotten him. A tribute in the Daily Star, one of Bangladesh’s biggest English-language papers, says Schanberg “first broke Pak atrocities to the world.”

Mofidul Hoque, a founder and trustee of Bangladesh’s Liberation War Museum, translated 36 of Schanberg’s country-specific reports into Bengali and published them in 1995 under the title Dateline Bangladesh: Nineteen Seventy-one. Schanberg wrote the preface. In 2012 and 2013, Bangladesh drew up a list of “Friends of the Bangladesh Liberation War.” Hoque, who was on the committee established by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that worked on the project, said Schanberg was invited to come to Dhaka to be honored, but was unable to make the trip.* Schanberg’s reports were also used in efforts to prosecute those who collaborated with the Pakistani military. In Hoque’s telling, the response to the Cambodian part of Schanberg’s work–the praise, the movie–had the unintentional effect of overshadowing his admirable coverage of the atrocities in Bangladesh.

“He came to be known for his Cambodian reportage mostly because of the film, [The] Killing Field[s]. He also earned Pulitzer Prize for his reports on Cambodia. On the other hand Bangladesh 1971 became a forgotten episode for the global community. There was no Pulitzer or a film with global audience. But Bangladesh can never forget Sydney Schanberg,” Hoque wrote in an email. “He is part of the history of [the] emergence of Bangladesh and he will remain alive as long as history lives.”

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Sydney Schanberg testified in Phnom Penh at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in 2013. It also misstated his reason for not traveling to Bangladesh in later years. It was not a heart operation that kept him away, but heart-related health issues that restricted his travel options.

Joe Freeman is a journalist who lives in Yangon and has reported from Cambodia, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. Follow him on Twitter @joefree215.