On a particular stretch of Route 1 in South Vietnam, an iconic picture was taken in 1972 which would indelibly change the world’s perception of the war. In the photograph, nine-year-old Kim Phuc runs towards the camera from her bombed village. Her mouth is open as she screams from the searing pain of napalm on her naked skin, as all of her clothes have been burned off her body.
In 2005 Phuc decided to return to her village after her father passed away. Thirty-three years after the picture was taken, she stood on the same road with her husband and two sons.
“How could this road seem so normal? It all seemed impossible [ . . . ] Yet, it’s on this road that I ran for my life, screaming ‘nong qua! nong qua!’ Too hot! Too hot!” she said.
“Even after tragedies, there are miracles.” The first miracle was that the soles of her feet weren’t burnt, so she ran. The second miracle was that her father had a friend who was a doctor, so she was transferred to the best burn-unit hospital in Saigon. Calm and soft-spoken, this is how Phuc began her story at Concordia last Tuesday.
“Why me?” she asked, then lifted her left arm, covered in burn scars – a reminder of the 17 different operations she went through over the years.
“When horrible things happen to us, it’s natural to go down the path of anger, bitterness and resentment,” she said. “But somehow I survived. Somewhere I found strength. Inside of me was a tough little girl who told me to live.”
The girl in the picture isn’t just the subject of an internationally-acclaimed picture which won war photographer Nick Ut the Pulitzer Prize. Her name is Phan Thi Kim Phuc. Her story begins with despair, struggles through reconciliation and ends with the power of forgiveness.
Tragedy and Despair
Phuc had forgotten the photographer’s face until she met him in Cuba 17 years later. After the picture was taken, Ut immediately brought Phuc to the hospital, ultimately saving her life. The two are now best friends.
There is a story behind Ut too, before his historic first encounter with Phuc. In 1972, most of the American helicopter units had already left Vietnam. But Associated Press photograher Huynh Cong Ut remained, armed with only his Nikon and Leica cameras. Ut’s assignment was to reach the South Vietnamese units that had been sent to reopen Route 1, which had fallen under North Vietnamese control.
As the bombs dropped on Trang Bang village, near the road leading from Saigon to the Cambodian border, Ut began to shoot. Through the smoke and flames, he heard children screaming as they emerged from the inferno. On the left of the picture is Phuc’s 12-year-old brother Phan Thanh Tam with their five-year-old brother Phan Thanh Phuoc behind him. Phuc is in the middle. At the right are her cousins Ho Van Bo, a boy, and Ho Thi Ting, a girl.
“Napalm was burning gasoline underneath my skin. It generates a heat of 800 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, the soldier who tried to help me on the road didn’t know anything about burns. When he poured water over my body, the pain was . . . unbearable,” Phuc said.
Phuc was inspired by her long recovery in the hospital to become a doctor. But even after the war, she still felt trapped. “Yes, I had privilege because of the picture. But the Communist government took away my freedom and used me as their war trophy for propaganda,” she said.
Seeking a Brighter Future
“I was determined not to be a victim all over again. That meant I had to escape,” she said. Four years later, she converted from the Cai Dai religion to Christianity. “I sought and sought and sought by praying to the many gods that the Cao Dai religion gave to me. I tried my best. But deep down, nobody knew what had happened in my heart,” she said.
When Phuc read the Bible’s New Testament, she discovered the difference between the teachings of Jesus Christ from those of the Cao Dai, a monotheistic religion that values prayer, ancestor worship, non-violence and vegetarianism. Phuc was confused and questioned each religion’s validity. “Then one day I faced the sky and asked, ‘God are you real? Do you exist? Please help me!'” she said. She got her answer, so she accepted Jesus as her personal saviour on Christmas Day 1982, when she was 19-years-old.
“The situation didn’t change, but my heart was filled with joy. I had true hope to overcome my physical and emotional self. I wanted to fulfill my dream to help others just like me,” she said.
In 1986 Phuc managed to persuade Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong to support her dream of becoming a doctor. He arranged for her to study medicine in Cuba. But because of health problems, Phuc had to change her studies from medicine to Spanish and English. “It was sad. I thought I lost my dream of becoming a doctor,” she said. But when one door closed, another opened, as Phuc, who had always thought she could never find a mate because of her scars, then met her future husband Bui Huy Tuan.
And then another door opened. Phuc traveled to Moscow in 1992 for her honeymoon, but on her way back, the plane stopped in Gander, Newfoundland to refuel. With only her camera in hand, the newlyweds walked off the airplane and defected to the Canadian government.
Once she felt healed, she was ready to share her forgiveness. In 1996, Kim went to the United States Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C on Veterans Day. There, she met US veteran John Plummer who came forward to express his guilt and remorse for his participation in the bombing. “He was not the pilot who dropped the bomb. He was coordinating the air strike. He received the order from above and transferred that order to the pilot,” Kim said. She publically forgave Plummer.
At first she really wanted revenge. But she asked god to help her love her enemies. Her way of dealing with the hatred is to close off its source of release, bit by bit. She found a “cup.” She put her hatred in that cup; all the pain and people that hurt her. At first, she filled the cup with black coffee, but as the days went by less and less coffee was poured. Until one day, not one drop of coffee went into the cup. “The cup was filled with light. Filled with love, wisdom, love, peace, joy, compassion and forgiveness. And it healed my heart.”
Now, Kim travels to share forgiveness with others. The Kim Phuc Foundation International has many projects. Last year, they built a school in Uganda and are helping 300 orphan children medically, physically and socially.
“I feel so rich because I have a relationship with people around the world. I want to give courage. Everyone can do something, small or great. But if you can do something to be a blessing you can change the whole world. You don’t have to wait until you are somebody to do something. It’s who you are. So be a blessing.”