Girl in famous Vietnam photo talks about forgiveness
The girl in the photo — naked, crying, burned, running, with other children, away from the smoke — became emblematic of human suffering during the Vietnam War. Kim Phuc was 9 then, a child who would spend the next 14 months in the hospital and the rest of her life in skin blistered from the napalm that hit her body and burned off her clothes. She ran until she no longer could, and then she fainted.
More than 40 years after her injury, Phuc, now married with two teenagers and living near Toronto, travels the world to talk about the anger she left behind. After years spent in internal pain, she said, she forgave those who disfigured her.
“Through my story, I really give people hope,” she said by phone from her home in Canada. “If they [are] seeking hope and forgiveness, it’s possible. If that little girl can do it, then everyone can do it.”
Phuc, who created a foundation devoted to helping child victims of war, will speak at the Fenn School in Concord on Tuesday as part of the fourth annual Multicultural Educators Forum. (Some seats are available to the public, and can be reserved by e-mailing Jennifer Youk See at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Phuc will address how schools can develop the qualities of empathy, respect and forgiveness. She was asked to take part in the forum after the independent school’s director of diversity and some faculty members heard her speak at a conference last year.
Phuc lived in Trang Bang, north of Saigon, when the war started. On June 8, 1972, Phuc, her family, other villagers and South Vietnamese soldiers had been hiding in a temple for three days. The day of the attack, they heard planes flying overhead. One of the soldiers told the civilians to run away, that the plane was going to bomb the temple.
Phuc went outside and saw the plane getting closer, and then heard the sound of four bombs hitting the ground. She couldn’t run. She didn’t know until later, but the bombs carried napalm, a gel-like incendiary that clings to its victims as it burns.
“Suddenly I saw the fire everywhere around me,” she remembers. “At that moment, I didn’t see anyone, just the fire. Suddenly, I saw my left arm burning. I used my right hand to try to take it off.”
Her left hand was damaged, too. Her clothes burned off. Later, she would be thankful that her feet weren’t damaged because she could run away, run until she was outside the fire. She saw her brothers, her cousins, and some soldiers running, too. She ran until she couldn’t run any more.
“I called out, ‘Too hot, too hot,’ ” she remembers. “Then one of the soldiers, he tried to help me. He poured water over my body. At that moment, I passed out.”
She learned afterward that the photographer, Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut, took her to the hospital. Two of her cousins, ages 9 months and 3 years, died in the bombing. Phuc had burns over two-thirds of her body and was not expected to live.
She spent 14 months at the hospital, undergoing many skin grafts and surgeries. But after she recovered, she was used by the Vietnamese government for propaganda: She was a “living symbol of the war.”
Phuc converted to Christianity 10 years after the attack, when she was living with her sister in Saigon. Phuc was reading about religion in the library, searching for meaning in her suffering, and was moved by the New Testament.
Her conversion displeased her family, she said, who practiced Cao Dai, a Vietnamese religion. She also grew tired of the government’s control over her life. In 1986, she went to study in Cuba, where she met her husband.
They traveled to Moscow for their honeymoon in 1992, and defected to Canada when their plane stopped in Newfoundland for fuel. Now they live with their two sons, Thomas, 18, and Stephen, 15, near Toronto. Phuc had feared that her injuries would keep her from experiencing both marriage and motherhood.
”After I left the hospital, every time I endured the pain and I look at my scars, I never thought in the future no boy [would] love me and marry me, so that I never have the normal life like everyone else,” she said.
Phuc’s scars on her back and arms still hurt, especially when the weather changes. She eats healthy foods, exercises, and tries to distract herself from the pain.
Now 49, Phuc serves as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, and gives 20 or 25 speeches around the world each year.
“People helped me through — the doctor, nurses,” Phuc said. “People find the way to help me and they give me the future. And so now I really want to give back.”
The iconic photo earned Ut, who was working for the Associated Press, the Pulitzer Prize. Phuc keeps a copy in her house, hidden in a bookcase among magazines. She only looks at it when she is alone.
“It’s horrible, it’s ugly. I can feel the burning, the smell, at that moment,” she said. “I avoid that. It’s my choice. I avoid living that past.”