A young girl running down the road naked during the Vietnam War, burned by napalm and mouth open in a silent scream. This image is seared into the memories of those who recall the Vietnam War and its horror.
That 9-year-old girl, Kim Phuc Phan Thi, grew up to be a gracious, well-spoken woman, a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and a dedicated peace activist. And Kim Phuc shared her story with the Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School community the week of Oct. 22—first at “Enduring Spirit,” the fall HIES Department Chair Speaker Series at the High Museum, and again during a talk to Upper School students on Oct. 23.
The tiny woman in a long, flowing, Vietnamese gown captivated both audiences as she talked about the fateful day on June 8, 1972, when she was badly burned by napalm dropped by South Vietnamese planes near her village, Trang Bang. Many villagers, including Kim Phuc, had taken shelter in a Buddhist pagoda, which was mistakenly bombed.
“That day all the villagers were told to hide in the temple, and to the children that was an adventure,” she remembered. “The temple seemed like a holy place, and a safe place. How could we imagine the horror that would fall from the sky?
“We were running down the road and suddenly there were bombs and explosions. My clothes were burned off from the fire and my skin was on fire. Someone began screaming, ‘Too hot! Too hot!' And that person was me.”
An iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Kim Phuc and others running for their lives was taken immediately afterward by Associated Press photographer Huyng Cong Nick Ut, who later drove the injured girl to a hospital.
Kim Phuc then suffered years of painful hospital treatment and burn therapy, including 17 operations over 14 months to heal skin blistered from the napalm, a jellied incendiary. And in the years following, she discovered a truth that in some ways saved her life: “Napalm is powerful, yes, but love, hope and forgiveness are more powerful.
“Deep in my heart I really wanted to let people know how beautiful the world can be if everyone can learn to live with love, hope and forgiveness,” she said. “We would not have war at all.”
But how was forgiveness possible for someone scarred forever by an attack that took place more than 40 years ago? Prayer, specifically, helped Kim Phuc on her journey from anger to forgiveness—prayer for those who had hurt her, and prayers for God to remove the hatred in her heart.
“I prayed over and over for God to help me,” she recalled. “And I trusted and obeyed that God would do great things in my life.”
She also began giving more of herself to others, became deliberately more conscious of her blessings, and strived to live a simpler life.
“Finally, I was free,” she said. “And that is heaven and earth for me.”
Eventually, Kim Phuc founded the Kim Foundation International, which offers medical and psychological help to children traumatized by war. She lives in Toronto, with her husband and two teen-aged sons, and helps with school and hospital projects worldwide.
Kim Phuc also travels extensively, encouraging audiences, such as those at Holy Innocents’, and telling them that forgiveness is possible, even in the worst circumstances.
“If that little girl in the picture can do it,” she said, “then anyone can.”
For more information on Kim Phuc’s foundation, visit: http://www.kimfoundation.com