On June 8th 1972 during the Vietnam war, photographer Nick Ut took a series of photographs of the napalm attack on the village of Trảng Bàng. One of these photographs later brought the Pulitzer Prize to Nick. Most people will recognise the photograph of children running from the village. One of those children was the young girl Kim Phuc running naked towards the camera.
This photograph represents a terrible a reality of war, and is a truly iconic image of children running for their lives as their village is destroyed.
For Kim Phuc and Nick Ut the story didn’t end there. Nick took her to hospital. He and other photographers visited her during her stay, and also later after she was finally released after 13 months. But these visits had to end as the war itself ended.
The victorious regime wanted to use poor Kim as a propaganda tool, and she was removed from her studies in medicine to show her off to foreign journalists.
Kim recalls: “I wanted to escape that picture. I got burned by napalm and I became a victim of war but, growing up, I became another kind of victim. I wished I had died.”
Not only did Kim have to suffer the horror of that day, but the burns she suffered have left with pain every day as a constant reminder. With the harsh regime that had taken control, and painkilling drugs hard to come by, it’s hard to imagine how tough life must have been.
In 1986 the Vietnamese Prime Minister, Phạm Văn Đồng, was so touched by Kim’s story that he granted Kim permission to move to Cuba to carry on her studies. He also became her friend and patron. This brought about a momentous change in Kim’s life in many ways.
It was during this time in Cuba that Kim met her future husband, Bui Huy Toan.
After marrying, the couple went on honeymoon, and it during a refueling stop in Newfoundland that they asked for asylum in Canada, which was granted. Later they became Canadian citizens.
Over the years Kim has learned to forgive what happened to her. This shows a great strength of character that i greatly admire.
Kim also became a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. On top of this she set up the Kim Foundation with the aim of helping child victims of war with both medical and psychological assistance.
In recognition of or her work Kim has been awarded an honorary Doctorate of Law by York University in Toronto, Ontario. An honorary degree in Law from Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. Another honorary degree in Doctorate of Laws by the University of Lethbridge. She’s also been awarded the Order of Ontario.
Nick Ut still works as a photographer, but that day has stayed with him, and over the years he and Kim have become friends. In a few short words he says “Today, I’m so happy I helped Kim I call her my daughter.”
It’s now 40 years since that attack on her village. The young “Napalm Girl” still has pain, but from that harsh life, she now has a husband and two children, and works for peace. In her own words she says:
“I have a husband and a new life and want to be normal. I’m so thankful I can accept the picture as a powerful gift.
“Then it is my choice. Then I can work with it for peace.”
On a personal level i look at this photograph and realise that Kim Phuc is just a year older than me. I grew up in a decent home in England, she was one of many having to suffer the horrors of war. The harsh life, injuries, and constant pain she suffered as a child are impossible to comprehend for those of us who have never experienced war. For Kim to find happiness and forgiveness, and to work now towards peace and help other child victims speaks volumes for the woman she has become.
When i first saw this photograph i did have some understanding of what it represented. My grandparents were those who lived and fought in WW2. Television had programmes about the war that we all as a family watched.
Photographs from Vietnam gradually added to my youthful disgust of war, a disgust i will always have!
One of the photos that always stuck in my mind over the years was the one of Kim Phuc. After she’d gained asylum in Canada and her story slowly came out, i made a point of following what happened to her. Over the years she has become a woman i greatly admire.
The following footage is from an ITN news film. It shows Kim looking remarkably calm. I guess the fear and shock must have had this effect. Apparently she later passed out. At the end of the footage is a woman carrying a baby. You can see the flesh hanging off the baby, another terrible casualty of a terrible war…
In this Daily Mirror report The Day Our World Was Set On Fire from 2006, they track down two other children in the photograph, her cousins Ho Van Bon and Ho Thi Ting. Kim’s brother Phan Tam Than, who can be seen in the foreground, had sadly died of a brain haemorrhage the year before.
Kim Phuc’s biography can be read in the 1999 publication by Denise Chong entitled ‘The Girl In The Picture’.