Kim Phuc is known internationally as the napalm girl, the child in the historic news photo fleeing a bombardment during the Vietnam War. She is one of 20 people from across the globe featured in the forthcoming book Children Who Changed the World. “My wish is to never again see people suffer like that, especially children.”
By Frank Kuin
With a friendly smile, Kim Phuc asks if the appointment can be rescheduled for later in the day. She is suffering pain and is feeling sick, she says. That happens regularly, especially if the weather changes – when it’s raining and there are fluctuations in the air pressure. That’s when the burns on her body hurt the most, especially on her back, where her skin and tissue are deeply burned. “If the weather is stable, I am stable,” she says softly. “But the last three days, my back has been very painful.”
Kim, 51, stopped taking pain medication more than 10 years ago, she says. She tries to deal with the pain in other ways, including massage of the burns to a third of her body. She can also put pressure on the scars by pushing her body against a towel rack. That way, she can treat herself at home in Ajax, a suburb of Toronto. She does that regularly, for 30 to 40 minutes at a time.
But her main strategy against the pain of the severe burns she suffered when she was 9 years old is to try not to think about it. By enjoying her peaceful immigrant life in Canada with her husband, Bui Huy Toan, and their two sons, Thomas (20) and Stephen (17). Kim also cares for her elderly parents, whom she has sponsored to come to Canada from their country of origin, Vietnam.
It is clear, however, that not a day goes by when Kim is not confronted with the traumatic events of more than 40 years ago in her native region in southern Vietnam. In 1972, fate turned her instantly from an anonymous child into an innocent victim of the Vietnam War, recognized around the world. In the years that followed, she became a symbol of the cruel impact of war on children – a role she plays to the present day, as a Goodwill Ambassador of UNESCO, the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization of the United Nations, and through her own charitable organization, the Kim Foundation.
“I remember the fire burned my body”
Because Phan Thi Kim Phuc – Kim’s full name – is also known as ‘the girl in the picture’: the 9-year-old child in the historic 1972 news photo who runs, naked and scared, from a bombing raid on the village in which she lived. Her arms, neck and back were struck by burning napalm, and she cried out in unbearable pain. “Too hot, too hot,” she screamed as she fled the blaze and smoke that enveloped her family home, and the local temple where members of the family had sought refuge from firefights between South Vietnamese troops and fighters of the communist Vietcong.
The village, Trang Bang, in the South Vietnamese highlands not far from the border with Cambodia, was targeted by a South Vietnamese bomber to chase out suspected Vietcong fighters. The aircraft released a load of canisters with napalm – an explosive substance consisting of petroleum and a thickening agent to make it stick to anything it flies into. Napalm was used extensively by the United States during the war in Vietnam. It is notorious for the severe burns it causes in people who come into contact with it.
Kim can still remember the day of the bombing, June 8, 1972. “I do not know how I survived, because it was so horrible. I remember the fire burned my body. Fortunately, my feet were not burned, so I was able to run out of the fire. I stopped thinking, I was terrified. I could not see my back, but I could see my left arm, which was the same: also badly burned. I saw the fire on my arm, and used my right hand to try and wipe it out. But that only made it worse: my right hand also got burned. My clothes were burned by the fire, I did not take them off.”
Without clothes, Kim ran onto the main road near Trang Bang, a thoroughfare between Saigon and the Cambodian border. Other family members also fled the sudden hell, including her 12-year-old brother Tam and several cousins. Her grandmother Tao carried her dying grandchild Danh, Kim’s 3-year-old cousin, in her arms. Patches of burned skin dangled from his little body. Danh and his 9-month-old brother Cuong died as a result of the bombing. Behind the crying Kim, dark smoke can be seen rising from the ruins of her home village, along with a group of Americans.
The dramatic moment was captured by Huynh Cong ‘Nick’ Ut, a young photographer with the American news agency Associated Press. Like a number of other journalists, he had come to witness the fighting in Trang Bang that day. Ut and the others attended to the children. One of them gave Kim water to drink and tried to help by pouring water on her back. It streamed down her body piping hot. “At that moment, I passed out,” says Kim. “I don’t remember anything else of what happened that day.”
Ut took her with him in the AP van and went in search of a hospital, leaving Kim with a nurse before continuing to the AP bureau in Saigon, still under American influence, to have his photos developed. He delivered a selection to Horst Faas, an experienced photojournalist in South Vietnam. Both men knew one of the basic rules of AP’s photo policy: no nudity, certainly not frontal. But Faas realized immediately that that rule should be broken with the photo of Kim. He transmitted the photo to AP headquarters in New York, which in turn sent the image into the world.
The next day, Kim’s picture was on front pages of newspapers all over the world – unbeknownst to her. The image of the children made a big impression internationally, particularly in the United States. Readers were confronted harshly with the atrocities of the protracted military conflict in Vietnam – perhaps more so than ever. The photo contributed to the growing opposition to the war, which culminated in an American withdrawal in 1973, and a North Vietnamese victory in 1975.
“How can they let children suffer like that?”
The power of the photo of Kim is that it shows, like few other pictures do, the futility of war and its brutal effects on innocent victims. What had this fragile girl done to deserve this horrible fate? “I think that it really made people more aware of the war,” says Kim. “How can they let children suffer like that? I am that girl, and I wondered how I could survive. There are no words to describe how horrible it was.”
Nick Ut won several awards for the photo, which went down in history as one of the defining photographs of the Vietnam War and one of the best known news photos of the 20th century. The image, titled ‘The Terror of War’, won a World Press Photo award, followed in 1973 by the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography. “When I pressed the button, I knew: this picture will stop the war,” Nick Ut was quoted as saying in 2014 by L.A. Weekly.
The dramatic image has also had a decisive influence on the life of Kim Phuc. Not only did her chance encounter with Nick Ut mean that her life was saved, but in later years the photo also influenced her own vision of how to spend her life. She decided to embrace her status as a symbol of anti-war sentiment, which she acquired unwittingly as a child, by presenting herself as an advocate of peace and against violence.
“At the moment the picture was taken, I had no choice,” says Kim. “But when I grew up I did have a choice, and I had to make a decision. That moment has changed my life forever.” She found inspiration in the fact that she lived to tell about the bombing and its aftermath. “I am so thankful that I’m still alive, I feel it’s a privilege, it’s a miracle. I’m supposed to be dead.”
It is indeed miraculous that Kim did not succumb to her serious injuries. In the first hours, days and weeks after the bombing, her life was in serious danger, as described in a biography by Canadian author Denise Chong, The Girl in the Picture: The story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam war. Foreign journalists arranged for ‘the girl in the picture’ to be transferred to an American plastic and reconstructive surgery clinic in Saigon, the Barsky Unit. She received blood transfusions from her mother, followed by several skin grafts. For over a month, she was in critical condition. Wounds had to be cleansed daily – a painful process. After six months, in November 1972, Kim was able to go to a rehabilitation center in Saigon. She remained there until July 1973.
Kim’s recovery would not have been possible if Nick Ut had not taken her to the hospital. More than 40 years later, she still has a strong bond with the photographer, who now lives in Los Angeles. She describes him as “a big part of my family” and calls him ‘Uncle Ut’, an affectionate name. “I am so thankful Uncle Ut was there, he’s my hero,” says Kim. “He took the picture at the right moment in history. The napalm didn’t know who he was, he could have been killed because he was close to the fire. But more importantly, he also took the second step, he put me in the van and rushed me to the nearest hospital. That means he saved my life. I am so thankful for that.”
It took a long emotional quest for Kim to reach that gratitude. For a global audience, the picture is a symbol of suffering by innocent victims of war, but to Kim it also represents a family tragedy. As is often the case with traumatic experiences, Kim struggled with negative feelings, including sorrow, anger and frustration, fueled when her international fame as the napalm girl continued to haunt her. Foreign journalists regularly tracked her down for stories about how the ‘napalm girl’ was doing. The Vietnamese government forced her to meet with visiting journalists and other guests. She had to abandon her studies.
Kim fell into a depression and went looking for answers. She did not find them in the religion of her family, Caodai. Aided by an acquaintance, she decided to convert to Christianity – a step that she hails as a turning point in her life. “This has helped me a lot,” she says. “It was a turn for me: from the ugly girl, the bitter girl, the hatred girl, the napalm girl, now I am living every day with the symbol of love, hope and forgiveness.”
Several years later, the Vietnamese government allowed her to go study in Cuba, away from the constant interest of foreign media. In Havana, she met her husband, Bui Huy Toan, a fellow student from North Vietnam. On the return journey from their honeymoon in Moscow, the newlyweds got off the plane in Gander, Newfoundland, and successfully applied for asylum in Canada. They settled in Toronto and had two sons: Thomas (1994) and Stephen (1997).
Canada, with its reputation as a peaceful country with a constructive role in the world, is a good fit for Kim. “I love Canada,” she says. “It’s my home, my life is settled in Canada. I have freedom, and people have accepted me. I can see my children grow up without fear of war. Especially when they were 9 years old, I looked at them every moment. I’m so thankful that they do not face all the fear like their mother at that age. They enjoy going to school, to have a good meal, they have a good place to stay under protection. I wish all children around the world could live like that.”
But that is not the case; Kim is constantly confronted with news of wars and violence in various parts of the world. She has great difficulty with it, and finds it painful to hear about other bombings and the suffering of innocent victims. “My wish is to never again see people suffer like that, especially children. When world leaders take action, they need to think more about the suffering of children. I work with my picture to remind them of that.”
This is an edited version of a chapter from the book ‘Children who changed the world’, published by PixelPerfect in November.
More information about the Kim Foundation can be found at www.kimfoundation.com
Kim Phuc in the Netherlands: let hate escape from your heart
By Peter de Ruiter
“You are my favourite audience. I prefer to be with children.” With these words, Kim Phuc greeted about 100 students from schools in and around the Dutch city of Arnhem during a meeting at Liemers College in Zevenaar, a town hall-style gathering reminiscent of the popular Dutch TV program College Tour.
Kim appeared to be more at ease than the day before, when she addressed 400 adults at the Eusebius Church in Arnhem for a lecture at a conference held by the Dutch organisation ‘Bridge to the Future’. That conference, on 19 September 2014, was held to mark the 70th anniversary of ‘Operation Market Garden’, an Allied offensive in the region during World War II.
But in both settings, Kim made a deep impression with her life story and her call for peace, saying: “The only way to end conflicts is to talk to one another.”
The students in Zevenaar asked Kim about the effect of the famous photo on her life. “At first I hated the picture,” she told them. “But it had a big impact. World leaders were shown the consequences of war. The picture has changed the world and helped bring an end to the war in Vietnam.”
Kim recounted how she dealt with the hatred she initially felt for the people who were responsible for the napalm attack in which she was injured. She let the resentment gradually escape from her heart, like pouring black coffee from a mug, she said. “Once you let all hate escape, your heart is filled with pure, fresh water. That has a positive influence on everyone.”
At the end of the discussion, the Vietnamese-Canadian urged the students to take action to promote peace. “I have faith in you; you have the future in your hands. When someone has hurt you, you should forgive them and let love back in.”
This post is also available in: Dutch
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