Kim Phuc – A Picture of PeaceWhy me? Why did I live? Ten years after napalm scorched her body the answer changed her life.
Her name may not ring a bell, but no one can forget the haunting Pulitzer Prize winning picture; the one that plastered the world with guilt and shame, helped to catalyze ceasefire in Vietnam, and ultimately brought America to its knees.
Photograph by Nick Ut, The Associated Press.
Phan Thi Kim Phuc is “the girl in the picture” – the one snapped arbitrarily by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut as he watched the screaming naked girl flee with her cousins and friends from the flames enveloping their village. As Ut dropped his camera and rushed the nine-year-old to safety, he little knew he was sparing the world future warfare.
This traumatic scene riveted hearts worldwide and rendered the Vietnam War meaningless; it also sparked something inside the dying Phuc, who would later become the UN Goodwill Ambassador for Peace.
Born to a tight-knit, wealthy family in Trang Bang, Vietnam, Kim describes her childhood as a happy one. “The only pain I knew was falling off my bicycle,” she laughs. Unfortunately, her unsuspecting village was located on Route 1, a supply road between Saigon and Phnom Penh. Later, when asked why they bombed Trang Bang, the pilots responded, “It was in the way.”
Kim says she hadn’t known fear until the moment the bomb incinerated everything familiar to her.
Defined by Wikipedia as “jellied gasoline,” napalm is used in flamethrowers and bombs by the US and Allied forces to increase effectiveness of flammable liquids.
“Napalm is the most terrible pain you can imagine,” describes Kim. “Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. Napalm generates temperatures of 800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius.”
With the gasoline eating away at her skin, forming third-degree burns, the young girl wasn’t expected to live. Yet 14 months of hospitalization and 17 surgeries later, Kim returned home, “hoping to be a normal kid again.”
Nevertheless, the true scars were only beginning to form. Dedicated to schooling, Kim poured herself into her studies and quickly caught up with her classmates. Her ultimate goal was to become a doctor. Yet, after being accepted into medicine in 1982, the Vietnamese government claimed the rights to Kim as a “National Symbol of War,” forcing her to leave school and return to her province unless otherwise instructed.
“I only wanted to escape that picture,” she describes. “I wanted to forget that ever happened. But they wanted everyone to remember.” Hundreds of interviews world-wide ensued with royalty, prime ministers, presidents, as well as roles in propaganda films.
“The question I always asked was, ‘Why me? Why did this happen to me?’” she tells Faith Today. “I was living with anger, with bitterness, and I saw my life as a burden. I hated my life. I didn’t want to live anymore.”
However, as crocuses spring from mud, so seeds of faith were planted during Kim’s darkest hours. “Deep down in my heart I really wanted to find the truth and the meaning behind why I suffered, and why that little girl was still alive. And, thank God, I got all that answered when I was 19.”
Due to her inability to attend school, Kim engrossed herself in the library. It was there that she came upon the Bible. “I couldn’t stop reading it.” Her curiosity drove her to church, where “I heard the Gospel explained to me for the first time. The love of God changed my life. I knew that Jesus died on the cross and paid for my sins. So I asked God, ‘Do you forgive me?’”
From that point on, her cry was no longer, “Why me?” but, “Please help me.”
Kim says, “My life was like a cup of coffee. Very dark: with hatred, anger, bitterness, sorrow…” After reading the Bible, she asked God, “How can I clean everything in my heart if it’s full of coffee?” The answer, she explains, was in letting her cup be poured out every day, “until it became empty and God spilled His love into my cup.”
As she turned into an overflowing vessel of love for others, Kim says she garnered spiritual gifts: “peace, wisdom, patience, then compassion.”
In spite of her dire circumstances, the young “National Symbol of War” was able to trust God to make things right for her. And He did.
In 1986, Kim was granted leave to Cuba where she engaged in English and Spanish studies. It was there that she met fellow Vietnamese student, Bui Huy Toan, who later became her husband.
Kim receives a cartoon version of her story. Telling children about the damage caused by wars, and the incredible opportunity we have to help children around the world who become innocent victims of war, is very dear to Kim's heart.
Photo: KIM Foundation International
Kim’s pain persisted, this time in the form of diabetes. Despite her studies being once again cut short, she continued to trust and obey.
“As soon as I became a Christian, the number one thing for me was prayer,” the 43-year-old relates. “But the secret is, when I pray, I believe. I have no doubts about it. I just find joy in the middle of trouble.”
Still tormented by governmental fingers in her back, Kim seized a chance at freedom en route to Cuba after honeymooning in Moscow.
When the plane stopped to refuel in Gander, Newfoundland, the newlywed couple defected and settled near Toronto, Ontario. With nothing more than the clothes on their backs and faith in their hearts, they slowly began to create a life of their own. A life of freedom.
For the next few years, Kim (now a mother of two boys and a member of Faith Way Baptist Church in Ajax, Ontario) avoided the public eye, scarred by previous over-exposure. Yet in 1996, she welcomed the opportunity to speak at the Veteran’s Day ceremonies in Washington, DC, in honour of Vietnam.
She proceeded to stand before the soldiers who had destroyed her home country, and express forgiveness for what they’d done.
After all, “they need peace – to live with true love and hope,” she explains.
“I am not involved in politics or religion. I just let them know it’s about the love of God and the love of people. That is more powerful than any weapon of war.”
During her visit to the Memorial, Kim met – and fully embraced – one of the pilots who had actually bombed her village. She assured the shattered man of her forgiveness, to which he responded, “This is the happiest day of my life.”
Now, Kim says with a smile, “We’re best friends! That’s true reconciliation.”
It was also in Washington that the Kim Foundation was conceived, as a result of Kim’s meeting with Ron Gibbs, a Vietnam veteran, and a member of the Board of Directors for the Memorial Fund. Kim and Gibbs shared common experiences and desires for the future, which in turn spawned the foundation.
Then, in 1997, UNESCO named Kim a Goodwill Ambassador for Peace. When asked how she weaves her faith into this position, Kim responds, “I do a very simple thing. I share my testimony. I offer my life to them, to the people, wherever I go.”
No longer is she bitter over the events of yester-year. Instead, she remarks:
“Had it not been for the war, I would not value peace.
“Had it not been for pain, I would not know the healing power of love.
“Had it not been for hatred, I would never have learned to forgive.
“Had it not been for imprisonment, I would not value freedom.
“Had it not been for living in want, I would not value everything I have.
“Had it not been for fear, I would not value peace.”
Once a National Symbol of War, Kim Phuc has become a symbol of forgiveness. Once ‘the girl in the picture,’ she is now a picture of peace.
Emily Wierenga is a freelance writer in Edmonton, Alberta.
Originally published in Faith Today, May/June 2007.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2007 Christianity.ca.