LYNNWOOD — Titonath Dith was just 5 when his family escaped Cambodia more than four decades ago.
Growing up in the United States, people he met were unaware of his homeland, or the horrors unfolding there.
“In my childhood, people would ask where I was from,” the Lynnwood physical therapist remembered. “I would say Cambodia.”
“They would say, ‘Colombia?’”
Cambodia, he’d repeat.
“They had no clue where it was.”
That started to change in the late 1970s, as more refugees from the Khmer Rouge began to reach U.S. soil. His father was perhaps the best known. A journalist, Dith Pran stayed after his family fled to tell the world about his country’s descent into chaos. Over the following years, he survived as communist zealots under the leadership of Pol Pot killed an estimated 2 million people — roughly a quarter of the country’s population — through executions, starvation or working them to death.
His experience became the basis of “The Killing Fields,” a major motion picture released in 1984. The award-winning film portrayed his partnership with New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg, who stayed to pursue the story, despite evacuation orders.
Dith Pran died in 2008, but his legacy continues. Titonath Dith and another son are helping to lead a Lynnwood-based charity in his name. The Dith Pran Foundation seeks to educate young people from rural Cambodia to prevent another landscape of corpses its namesake once described as “killing fields.”
Fleeing their homeland
Titonath Dith was born in 1969, as his native country was entering a terrible phase in its history.
There was a coup the next year. A communist insurgency was growing in the countryside. A war raged next door in Vietnam, at times spilling across the border.
Their father had learned French in school and taught himself English. His linguistic skills and work ethic made him a valuable commodity, especially among foreign journalists covering conflicts in southeast Asia.
Initially, Dith Pran worked as a fixer and interpreter for various news outlets. Schanberg eventually hired him full time.
The family enjoyed an upper-middle-class lifestyle in the capital, Phnom Penh, also earning money by renting out cars to foreigners and exchanging currency.
The three boys in the family were named after Josip Broz Tito, a.k.a. Marshal Tito, the socialist leader of Yugoslavia. Tito stuck as the nickname for Titonath, the middle brother. Older brother Titony goes by “Tony” and younger brother Titonel by Nel. They also have a sister, Hemkarey Tan.
Dith has just a few clear memories of his Cambodian childhood. In one, he sees his dad coming home and hugs him. In another, he’s looking at a fish tank when he hears a large explosion — a bomb.
In his final memory there, he recalls Schanberg carrying him to a truck that would take him, his siblings and mother to an American helicopter, which flew them to an aircraft carrier.
He wouldn’t return to Cambodia until 2006.
“I remember just looking down at the blue ocean and staring at the water,” he said. “It’s probably best that I don’t remember much.”
They spent a few weeks at a military base in Thailand. Then, mother Meoun Ser Dith and her four young children flew to Camp Pendleton in California. After a month, they resettled in San Francisco.
Schanberg and The New York Times had helped arrange the family’s escape with westerners on the helicopter. They continued to support them afterward.
“We definitely wouldn’t be here if not for the connection with Sydney,” Titonath Dith said. “… We were fortunate.”
In his honor, Dith named the eldest of his three sons Sydney.
Unable to speak English, Meoun Ser Dith went to school in the mornings. In the evenings, she took on sewing work, and her children helped at home.
“The New York Times supported me, but I wanted to do something,” said the mother, who now lives in Lynnwood. “At night, I would think about (her husband). I worried about him at night.”
“The Killing Fields”
The family, minus Dith Pran, left Phnom Penh on April 12, 1975. They wouldn’t see him again for another four and a half years. Within five days, the Khmer Rouge overran the capital.
“He and Sydney decided that this was a story that was larger than themselves as individuals,” Dith said. “They wanted to tell the world what was happening at that time.”
The American correspondent and his Cambodian partner soon got separated. Schanberg and other foreign journalists were later evacuated, but Dith Pran wound up in forced labor camps.
Haing S. Ngor, a Cambodian surgeon and genocide survivor with no prior acting experience, portrayed Dith Pran. Ngor’s work won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The film also pulled in Academy Awards for cinematography and film editing.
As Schanberg, the movie starred Sam Waterson, who later played a main character in the TV series “Law & Order.”
Titonath Dith didn’t learn about the conflict from his father. Not initially.
“We didn’t talk about it,” he said. “I learned through watching the movie the first time — and I started asking him questions about it.”
Though parts of the storyline depart from fact, most of the movie is true. A scene where Dith Pran eats a lizard is something he did while in captivity. He also ate tree bark, grasshoppers and rats — anything to stay alive.
He pretended to be uneducated, to avoid arousing the suspicions of paranoid anti-western revolutionaries, many of them child soldiers.
“My dad said that it was very realistic, although they had to dramatize things and make it less violent for westerners to watch it,” Dith said.
The Khmer Rouge was ousted in 1979, a year after the Vietnamese army invaded. Amidst the upheaval, Dith Pran escaped across the border into Thailand.
The film shows his reunion with Schanberg in a refugee camp in October 1979. The same month, he flew to the United States to join his family. They moved in 1980 to New York, where Dith Pran went to work as a New York Times staff photographer.
Return to Cambodia
Titonath Dith wouldn’t return to Cambodia until he was well into his 30s.
He got close in college, though. During a summer break in 1989, he worked for the International Rescue Committee at the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand. Thousands of Cambodians remained there in limbo.
“Those people had been there for 10 years hoping to get to a third nation,” he said. “I had in the back of my mind that I wanted to do something for Cambodia.”
He saw people who had lost limbs to land mines. At one point, Cambodia had the most land mines in the world. In just 2006, the country recorded 188 deaths from land mines, though the toll has since declined.
“When I saw that, I wanted to do something,” Titonath Dith said. “I like to help others because it’s in my genes.”
He became interested in physical therapy in the early 1990s, while working for a podiatrist in Brooklyn. He got a master’s degree in the field in 1998. Two years later, he moved to Western Washington, following his older brother.
“I’d come to visit and just loved this place,” he said.
Dith opened his own clinic in 2014. The sign for Atlas Physical Therapy on Highway 99 in south Everett shows the mythological titan Atlas holding up the world. Dith is attempting a similar feat, albeit on a human scale and hardly alone.
At The Dith Pran Foundation, Dith is the board secretary and his older brother the president. The vice president, Boston-based photographer David Barron, is Schanberg’s nephew. Schanberg died in 2016 at 82.
They incorporated the foundation in 2010 and later received federal tax-exempt status.
“We’re all volunteers,” Dith said. Donations go 100 percent toward scholarships.
As of this month, they were paying for five Cambodian students to study for careers in education, business and agronomy they wouldn’t have been able to afford on their own.
“We figure that if we can get them education, and they go back to the rural areas and they go back to teach to improve that area, we are helping and preventing another killing field from happening again,” Titonath Dith said. “A more educated world is a more peaceful world.”
During Pol Pot’s reign of terror, people were branded as enemies for showing any sign of intellect or foreign influence. Wearing eyeglasses, in some cases, was enough to be condemned to death.
Dith Pran made a plea 10 years ago, as he was dying of pancreatic cancer in New Jersey. Meoun Ser Dith was at his bedside.
In a New York Times interview, Dith Pran said he promised that if he survived the killing fields, he would never stop talking about them. He urged everyone to prevent another.
“If they can do that for me,” he said, “my spirit will be happy.”