It was 14 months after the attack on her village that Phan Thi Kim Phuc first laid her eyes on the photo which had gone viral, appearing on the front pages of newspapers across the globe. She was horrified to see herself running naked down the road “hopeless and crying”.
Today, the image is iconic, and the photographer behind it won a Pulitzer for outstanding photojournalism. But for Kim, the image was an embarrassing invasion of her privacy. Years later, her point of view has changed. She’s now at peace with the image, calling it a “powerful gift”, and even describing the photographer as her “hero”. What led to such a dramatic change of heart?
I’d set aside an hour to talk to Kim about the story behind the photo, but it quickly became apparent that this would be insufficient to capture the unimaginable horror yet simultaneous joy of her life. After two-and-a-half hours on the phone, we rounded up our chat with a very tearful prayer of thanksgiving. I was totally in awe of the way Jesus had worked in Kim’s life; she had been saved from the brink of death after three days lying injured, hungry and cold in a hospital morgue. The doctors thought she’d never make it. Napalm, which burns at 2,760 degrees Celsius (nearly 30 times hotter than boiling water) had melted Kim’s skin like wax. She was left with painful and life-limiting scarring, that made her “feel unfit to be loved”.
Kim grew up in the Vietnamese Cao Dai religion, but later encountered God after stumbling across a New Testament. She believes her miracle recovery can be attributed wholly to the power of God to do “impossible things”.
You were badly burned on 8 June 1972, following four Napalm bombs being dropped near your home in South Vietnam. How would you describe that horrific moment?
That day, the children had been given permission to play inside the temple near the bomb shelter. We’d just had lunch when the Vietnamese soldiers who were protecting us there told us to run. I remember running onto the road and I saw an airplane. It was so close to us, travelling fast and it was so loud. As I looked up, I saw four bombs landing. I closed my eyes and heard the bang, and when I opened them again there was fire everywhere; all over my body and it had burned off my clothes. I saw the fire over my left arm and I used my right hand to try and wipe it up. I was so terrified and so scared. I still remember what I thought at that moment: “Oh my goodness, I’ve got burned. I will be ugly and people will see me in a different way.” I ran out of the fire and caught up with my brothers, cousins and the soldiers. We ran for a while on the highway until I was too tired to run any more. We saw people on the road in the distance and I cried out: “Too hot. Too hot.” It was then that my picture was taken. One of the soldiers gave me some water to drink and tried to help me by pouring water over my burned body. I lost consciousness from the pain.
What happened to you after you lost consciousness?
From that moment until I came around in the hospital, I have no memories. My family and I were separated in the commotion and it took three days for them to find me. It was my brother who discovered me lying in the morgue – he and my mum planned to bury me but, luckily, they met my dad outside who had bumped into his old friend, a doctor, who realised I was still breathing. They called an ambulance and took me to the burns clinic. Every morning the nurses would put me in a bath of cold water to make it easier for them to cut off my dead, burned skin. It was so painful and I remember crying until I passed out.
Your photograph, taken by Nick Ut, quickly spread around the world. When was the first time you saw it?
After 14 months I was finally allowed home from the hospital. My father took the picture out from a drawer one day and gave it to me. I didn’t like it. I was naked and in agony, hopeless and crying. I didn’t ask for it to be taken – and my brothers and cousins had all their clothes on and I was the only one who didn’t. I was so embarrassed.
I learned that my picture had a big impact on people around the world but it wasn’t until I became a mother that it really hit me deeply in my heart. I looked at the picture then and felt I had to do something – not only to protect my own child but all the children around the world. Since then, the picture has been a powerful gift and I am so thankful. I always thank Uncle Ut – the photographer – he is my hero. He was there to take that picture, a moment of history in the Vietnam War. The picture continues to change the world. I believe that photographers have a responsibility to show the truth through pictures. I’m so thankful for each and every one of them.
What kind of scars were you left with – both physical and emotional?
Growing up with that scar over my neck, back and arm, I always asked: “Why me?” I hated it – I thought I’d never have a boyfriend or get married. I was really sad inside. I cried most when I was a teenager. I would cover it up and didn’t want anyone to know. I remember my first day home in the village after returning from hospital and seeing my friend. I waved and wanted to play with her, but when she saw my scars and saw I was different, she wouldn’t come near me. I felt unfit to be loved. It broke my heart. I had a lot of nightmares from being so scared and traumatised. People still ask me: “How can you deal with it?” But for me now, the answer is: “By the grace of God.”
You say the bombs led you to Christ. How did that happen?
I was raised in the traditional Cao Dai religion but because of the bombs, I had difficulties in my spiritual journey. The questions always on my mind were: “Why do I have to suffer this much?” or “Why didn’t I die so I don’t have to suffer?” The adults told me that the life I had lived before my own must have been bad – that I was a bad person – and that is why I had to suffer.
Nobody knew how much I was hurting inside. I threw myself into studying to be a doctor but I couldn’t fulfil my dream because my school was shut down. Everything became so hard to deal with. That was the lowest point in my life, in 1982, when I just wanted to die. I thought after I was dead I wouldn’t have to suffer any more. But I really just wanted to find the truth – the answer – and my purpose. I was seeking God. I remember sitting outside on a bench, looking up to the sky and yelling out: “God, are you real? Do you exist? Please help me. If you are real, I need you. I need a friend I can talk to and share my burden with.”
One day in the library in Saigon, where I spent my days studying, I poured over all of the religious books. Among them was the New Testament. I remember reading John 14:6 where Jesus says: “I am the way, the truth and the life”. I couldn’t figure it out, I had so many questions. I was living with my sister in Saigon and my brother-in-law had a Christian cousin who came to visit. I asked so many questions and he tried to explain to me that God is love, but I didn’t agree because of all my suffering. Eventually he invited me to church. I am so glad I accepted the invitation to go. I went back again and again to satisfy my curiosity.
What was the turning point for you?
It wasn’t until Christmas 1982, when the pastor explained why we celebrate Christmas, that I gave my life to Jesus. He spoke about Jesus dying on the cross for our sin – and that if we accept Jesus as our personal saviour that he will come into our hearts and bring peace. In that moment, I knew I needed that peace. I went to the altar and I opened my heart and accepted Jesus. I stopped worshiping all the gods that I’d prayed to before, and I knew that he had set me free. I continued to pray and the more I prayed, the more I had peace. I prayed for joy, for wisdom and, more than anything, for forgiveness. I had so much anger in my heart and, while sometimes I failed, I prayed that God would help me.
As a child I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I remember thinking: “Now I am in the right place at the right time.” Now I understand that I have the power to help people, because I understand other victims of tragedy. And from that my entire family became Christians and I am so thankful for that. They saw how my life changed, saw God working in me and how God is so real in my life.
You struggled with the ‘why me?’ question for a long time. How did you resolve it?
I believe that God had a plan for me. He looked down and he said: “I’m not finished with that little girl. I have a plan for you.” All that I went through – the physical, emotional and spiritual pain – means I can understand those who face pain.
When I was in Uganda I went to visit the burns unit at a hospital. It reminded me of how much pain I had been through. I cried. I asked God on that day to give me strength. I met a woman whose husband had thrown acid in her face. The nurse had to help her eat and drink – but she just ignored the nurse because she wanted to die. She had no hope at all. I went in to see her, showed her my scars; I showed her the picture. I said: “I got burned and now I am so happy to be here. I understand your pain.” I talked and prayed for her. She didn’t react to anything. Soon after, I got a message from the nurse saying that after I left, she stood up and walked through the hall and was smiling and agreed to eat and to drink and to talk. And I felt great to have given her that hope.
If you could speak to the person who dropped the bomb on you, what would you say?
That is my biggest dream. Even up to this point in my life I don’t know who did it – who the pilot was that dropped the bomb. In my prayers I hope that he is alive and that if he is, that I could hug him. I want to tell him from my heart: “I love you. I pray for you. I forgive you.” We have to show love, hope and forgiveness because every person needs that – rich or poor, every human being needs those things.
How do you feel now when you look at your scars?
Every time I touch my scar I am so thankful. My scar reminds me that God is with me. It is the mark that God stamped on my body to remind me he is there. I touch my scar and I love it – it humbles me, it makes me love people and do the work I am doing now. It takes me back to being that little girl, but now I have no upset or anger about it, I just go to the Lord and pray. And the more I pray, the more peace I have over my suffering. My scar makes me have more intimacy in my relationship with God. It’s the strength inside of me. My scar is a miracle.
Photo credit: Nick Ut/AP/Shutterstock