Healing scars: ‘the girl in the picture’

By Megan Martin on November 27, 2008

To much of the world, she is known simply as ‘the girl in the picture.’ She is a stark representation of the realities of war. But when Kim Phuc spoke to the students at Concordia University , she had only one message: peace.

“My story starts with a war and a bomb,” said Phuc. “Until that day in Vietnam, my most serious injuries were scrapes from falling off my bike; I understood nothing about war, or what it meant, until fire fell from the sky.”

The audience gasped as she rolled up her sleeve, revealing only a small section of the scars left from the napalm.

Phuc was in Trang Bang, a small village in Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. On June 8, 1972, her life changed forever. 

“The planes were so loud, but we thought we were safe in the temple,” she said. “After that, all I remember is running; my clothes had burned off and my skin was peeled back. I remember screaming and the most horrible smell.”

Four napalm bombs had hit the temple where Phuc and several other children were seeking refuge. Footage of the bombing revealed several children, including infants, emerging from the fires. Many of them would eventually die as a result of their injuries. After photographer Nick Ut snapped the now famous photo, he scooped Phuc up and rushed her to the nearest hospital.

“When my parents found me three days later, the doctors had given up hope, they said my burns were too severe and I was left to die,” said Phuc, as she grimaced. “Napalm is the worst burn you can imagine, it is burning gasoline that gets under your skin. It generates a heat of 800 to 1200 degrees Celsius.”

After being moved to the burn unit at another hospital in Saigon, Phuc recounts how she would pass out each time the nurses changed her bandages because the pain was simply too unbearable.

“I spent 14 months in the hospital, I had 17 operations and I almost died many times, but I am still here,” she says. “Somehow I survived, somewhere I found strength I didn’t know I had; inside of me was a tough little girl that told me to live.”

What she didn’t know, was that while she was recovering from her burns, people all over the world were seeing her photo. She was becoming the poster child for civilian-victims of war.

“People have said the picture helped to bring an end to the war,” said Phuc. “I did not choose to become a symbol of war, and for years I wanted to escape that picture. But even in tragedy there are miracles.”

Phuc eventually convinced the Vietnamese government to allow her to pursue an education. They sent her to Cuba to study medicine, though she would eventually change her major to English. She recounted how difficult it was to live under the communist regimes in both countries.

“Even though I had recovered physically, I was still in an emotional prison,” she says. “I wasn’t allowed to use my photo to speak out against violence because my government wouldn’t allow it; I had no real freedom.”

While studying, she met a man who would eventually become her husband. After they were married in Havana, the couple defected to Canada while en route to Moscow for their honeymoon. A determined Phuc snuck through an open door at the airport in Newfoundland while waiting for their plane to be refueled.

“My journey to freedom ended in Canada,” she says. “When I entered Canada, I was finally free, for the first time and I could speak about the picture on my own terms and use it for good.”

Now a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Phuc has traveled the globe telling her story.

“I share my story so that people can learn something and have a better life,” says Phuc. “People need to know that even a horrible story can have a happy ending.”

Phuc says she has forgiven those involved in the bombings in Vietnam. She has made it her personal mission to teach others about the horrors of war and how to find forgiveness in their own lives.

“The pain and nerve damage I have from the burns are a constant reminder of the violence that exists in the world,” said Phuc. “But I use it to show others that individuals can make a difference in the world, no matter what their story is.”

A smiling Phuc had one last message for the hundreds of people in the packed auditorium.

“In the end, napalm is no match for love, forgiveness and the human spirit.”

Phuc currently resides in Ajax, Ontario with her husband and two sons. She continues to serve as a UNESCO Ambassador and has received multiple awards for her humanitarian work, including an honorary doctorate of Law from York University in Toronto, Ontario.


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