Thursday, September 17, 2015

War Survivor

Can a Photo Change the World?
This was the caption of a recent poignant photo published in The Hamilton Spectator (and in media around the world) ~ a heart-breaking image of a police officer carrying the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy who was washed ashore on a Turkish beach after the dinghy carrying several refugees capsized in rough waters...all perished. Paul Berton, editor of the foregoing newspaper, was severely criticized for allowing this colour photograph to be publicly posted. I strongly support his decision to do so. This photo by Associated Press 'Speaks Volumes' about the atrocities of wars!

Strongly, I related to another 'child photo' of a South Vietnamese girl, who with other children and soldiers were escaping from bombs that exploded upon their home-village on June 8, 1972. It is her story, I share with you today.
Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime.
It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim ~
letting go of the pain and transferring oneself from 'victim to survivor'.
(C.R. Strahan)

It is important for people to know, that no matter what lies in their past,
they can overcome the dark side...and press on to the brighter world.
(Dave Pelzer)

Phan Thi Kim Phuc
In this Vietnamese name, the family name is 'Phan'.
According to Vietnamese custom, this person should properly be referred to
by the given name...'Kim Phuc'.
Kim is best known as the child depicted in the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken during the Vietnam War on June 8, 1972. The iconic photo taken in Trang Bang by Associated Press photographer, Nick Ut, shows her at nine years of age running naked on a road after being severely burned on her back by a South Vietnamese attack. Kim Phuc joined a group children, civilians and South Vietnam soldiers who were fleeing from the Cao Dai Temple to the safety of South Vietnamese-held positions. The bombing killed two of her brothers and villagers. Kim Phuc was badly burned and tore off her clothes as she yelled Nong qua, nong qua...(too hot, too hot) in the picture.
New York Times editors were at first hesitant to consider the photo
for publication because of the nudity, but eventually approved it.
Featured on the front page of the New York Times next day,
it earned a Pulitzer Prize and was chosen as the
World Press Photo of the Year for 1972.

A less publicized film shot by British television cameraman, Alan Downes for the British ITN news service and his Vietnamese counterpart Le Phuc Dinh was working for the American station, NBC, showed the events before and after the photograph was taken by Nick Ut. One photo is of him taking photographs as a passing airplane drops bombs. A group of children, Kim Phuc among them, run away in fear. After a few seconds, she encounters the reporters dressed in military fatigues, including Christopher Wain, who gave her water and poured some over her burns. As she turns sideways, the severity of her burns on her arm and back can be seen. A crying woman runs in the opposite direction holding her badly burned child.

It was June 8, 1972, when Phuc heard the soldiers scream,
We have to run out of this place! They will bomb here and we will be dead!”
Seconds later, she saw the tails of yellow and purple smoke bombs curling around the Cao Dai temple where her family had sheltered for three days, as north and south Vietnamese forces fought for control of their village. The ground rocked; then the heat of a hundred furnaces exploded as orange flames spit in all directions. Fire danced up Phuc's left arm. The threads of her cotton clothes evaporated on contact. Trees became angry torches. Searing pain bit through skin and muscle. “I will be ugly, and I'm not be normal anymore,” she thought, as her right hand brushed furiously across her blistering arm. In shock, she sprinted down Highway 1 behind her older brother. She didn't see the foreign journalists gathered as she ran toward them, screaming. Then, she lost consciousness.

The 21-year-old photographer, Nick Ut, who took the picture, drove Phuc to a small hospital. There, he was told the child was too far gone to help. But he flashed his American press badge, demanded that doctors treat the girl and left, assured that she would not be forgotten. “I cried, when I saw her running,” said Ut, whose older brother was killed on assignment with the AP in the southern Mekong Delta. “If I don't help her ~ if something happened and she died I think I'd kill myself after that.”

Back at the office in what was then U.S.-backed Saigon, he developed his film. When he saw the image of the naked little girl emerged, everyone feared it would be rejected because of the news agency's strict policy against nudity. But veteran Vietnam photo editor, Horst Fass took one look and knew it was a shot to 'break the rules'...arguing the photo's news value far outweighed other concerns.

A couple of days after the image shocked the world, another journalist found out the little girl had somehow survived the attack. Christopher Wain, a correspondent for the British Independent Television Network who gave Phuc water from his canteen and drizzled it down her burning back, fought to have her transferred to the American run Barsky unit which was the only facility in Saigon equipped to deal with her severe injuries “I had no idea where I was or what happened to me,” she said. “I woke up and I was in the hospital with so much pain, and then the nurses were around me...waking up with a terrible fear.” Thirty percent of Phuc's tiny body was scorched by third-degree burns, though her face somehow remained untouched. Over time, her melted flesh began to heal.
Every morning at 8 o'clock, the nurses put me in a burn bath to cut off all my dead skin. I just cried and cried and when I could not stand it any longer...I passed out”. After multiple skin grafts and surgeries, Phuc was finally allowed to leave, 13 months after the bombing. She had seen Ut's photo, which by then had won the Pulitzer Prize, but she was still unaware of its reach and power. She just wanted to go home and be a child again.

For a while, life did go somewhat back to normal. The photo was famous, but Phuc largely remained unknown except to those living in her tiny village near the Cambodian border. Ut and a few other journalists visited her, but that stopped after the northern communist forces seized control of South Vietnam on April 30, 1975, ending the war.

Life under the new regime became tough. Medical treatment and painkillers were expensive and hard to find for the teenager, who still suffered extreme headaches and pain. She worked hard and was accepted into medical school to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. But all that ended once the new communist leaders realized the propaganda value of the 'napalm-burned girl' in the photo. She was forced to quit college and return to her home province, where she was trotted out to meet foreign journalists. The visits were monitored and controlled, her words scripted. She smiled and played her 'role' as dictated, but the rage inside began to build and consume her.

I wanted to escape that picture,” she said. “ I got burned by napalm, and became a victim of war...but growing up then, I became another kind of victim.” She turned to Cao Dai, her Vietnamese religion for answers, but they didn't come. “My heart was exactly like a black coffee...I wished I died in that attack so I wouldn't suffer like that anymore. It was hard for me to carry all that burden with that hatred, with that anger and with that bitterness.” One day while visiting a library, Phuc found a Bible. For the first time, she started believing her life had a plan. Believing this, she turned to Christianity.

Then suddenly, once again, the photo that had given her unwanted fame brought opportunity. She travelled to West Germany in 1982 for medical care with the help of a foreign journalist. Later, Vietnam's prime minister, also touched by her story, made arrangements for her to study in Cuba. She was finally free from the minders and reporters hounding her at home, but her life was far from normal.

Nick Ut, working at the AP in Los Angeles, travelled to meet her in 1989, but they never had a moment
alone. There was no way for him to know she desperately wanted his help again. “I knew in my dream that one day 'Uncle Ut' could help me to have freedom,” said Phuc, referring to him by an affectionate Vietnamese term. “But I was in Cuba. I was really disappointed because I could not contact him.”

While at school, Phuc met a young Vietnamese man. She had never believed anyone would ever want her because of the ugly patchwork of scars that banded across her back and pitted her arm. But, Bui Huy Toan seemed to love her more because of them. The two decided to marry in 1992 and honeymooned in Moscow. On the flight back to Cuba, the newlyweds defected during a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland...they left the plane and asked for 'political asylum' in Canada, which was granted. The couple now lives in Ajax, Ontario near Toronto and have two children. The following year, she passed the Canadian Citizenship Test with a perfect score and became a Canadian citizen!

Phuc contacted Ut so share the news and he encouraged her to tell her story to the world. But she was done giving interviews and posing for photos, wanting to “live a normal life like everyone else here,” she said. Her biography...The Girl in the Picture...written bu Denise Chong was published in 1999 and a documentary came last the way she wanted it told. She was asked to become a United Nations' Ambassador to help victims of war. She and Ut have since reunited many times to tell their story, even travelling to London to meet Queen Elizabeth.

Kim Phuc Foundation: IN 1997 she established the first 'Kim Phuc Foundation in the US with the aim of providing medical and psychological assistance to child victims. Later, other foundations were set up, with the same name, under an umbrella organization...'Kim Phuc Foundation International'.

Recognition: In 1996 Phuc gave a speech at the United States Vietnam Memorial on Veterans' Day. She stated that 'one cannot change the past, but everyone can work together for a peaceful future'.
In 2004 Kim Phuc was awarded an honourary Doctorate of Law from York University in Toronto, Ontario. She was awarded the 'Order of Ontario' . In 2005 and 2011 she was awarded other honourary degrees from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and from the University of Lethbridge, Alberta.

Today, I'm so happy I helped Kim,” said Nick Ut, who still works for AP
and recently returned to Tran Bang Village. “I call her my daughter.”

After four decades, Kim Phuc, can finally look at a picture of herself,
 running naked and understand why it remains so powerful.
 It had saved her, tested her and freed her.

Forgiveness made me free from hatred.
I still have many scars on my body, severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness and love are much more powerful. We would not have war if everyone could learn to live with true love, hope and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself, Can You?` (by Kim Phuc)
Lest We Forget!

True Life Story Compiled by Merle Baird-Kerr...September 6. 2015
Comments are appreciated: email to:


  1. MEG WRITES: "What a wonderful story. I did not know how the story of that little girl ended. Thanks, so much for writing it.
    It made me cry, but it also made me feel 'Good' that she had survived and came to Canada to have a Good Life!"

  2. The world-wide published photo of the little Syrian boy, so obsessed me that it urged me to write the life of Kim Phuc, the young Vietnamese girl, who could also have died...if not for her determination and Long Term Care given her to heal her severe wounds and belief in the Christian faith that our God would help to heal her mind, body and soul. Thanks so much, Meg, for your sincere remarks.

  3. DILU and ABA WRITE: "A Beautiful...yet sad true story. We are so glad that she stayed positive through her painful and very sad life. We are proud of her strength to endure the suffering...and to create a new life."

  4. Kim became a symbol of not only strength, but also determination to overcome her injuries and have the hope that one day she would heal. Thank you, Dilu and Aba for your appreciation of this life story.