PHNOM PENH — Reach Sambath, a Khmer Rouge genocide survivor whose remarkable career took him from street vendor to AFP correspondent and finally spokesman of Cambodia's war crimes court, has died from a stroke. He was 47.
The ever-smiling reporter covered some of the pivotal moments in Cambodia's blood-stained history for AFP, including the death of Pol Pot, the first post-regime election and the Khmer Rouge's final days.
As a child Sambath was forcibly moved from his home in eastern Cambodia to the north.
When the regime fell he walked hundreds of kilometres (miles) home and later eked out a living selling ice on street corners and ferrying passengers around Phnom Penh on a bicycle.
After winning a scholarship to India he joined AFP in 1991 and helped rebuild its presence in the country after Khmer Rouge rule and Vietnamese occupation, braving difficult and dangerous conditions in a nation traumatised by decades of bloodshed.
He left the agency in 2003 and went on to teach journalism before working as a spokesman for the UN-backed war crimes court, which in its landmark first case sentenced former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav to 30 years in jail in July.
"In many ways he embodied the resurrection of his country," said Philippe Agret, a former AFP Bangkok bureau chief, who praised Sambath's "kindness and generosity".
He added: "Starting from scratch and with the help of the international community, he educated and guided a new generation of journalists, many of whom were born during the Pol Pot years."
Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the Marxist Khmer Rouge regime emptied cities in the late 1970s in a bid to create an agrarian utopia, killing up to two million through starvation, overwork and genocide.
Sambath himself was not spared the horrors of the Khmer Rouge years and lost many family members during the regime, including both parents. He is survived by his wife Chhoy Chanthy and their three children.
"His personal journey, from the terror of the killing fields to his years as an AFP correspondent and finally as spokesman at the Khmer Rouge trial, is an incredible story of the triumph of courage and determination over the darkest forces of humanity," said Eric Wishart, AFP Asia Pacific regional director.
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