Spy-novel life of Vietnam war's 'napalm girl'
Adventures took subject of iconic anti-war photo from Vietnamese village to Canada, via Cuba and a honeymoon in Moscow.
Last Modified: 08 Jun 2012 18:40

It was an image that helped change the world.

The iconic photograph of Phan Ti Kim Phuc was snapped on June 8, 1972. A little girl runs naked in the midst of members of her family, fleeing a South Vietnamese army incendiary bomb dropped on her village near Saigon.

When the canisters of white phosphorus and napalm ignited, they showered the hamlet of Trang Bang with liquid flame that adheres to human flesh and vaporises clothing.

That’s why Kim Phuc was nude as she ran, screaming “too hot, too hot” and beating at her arms with badly burned hands.

Today, seated on a lakeside beach near Toronto, she says her memories of the day her life changed are vivid and undiminished.

“I saw the fire everywhere around me. Of course I saw also the fire all over my arm, my left arm and I used my right hand to put it out ,” Kim says.

“I thought I will be ugly, not normal anymore forever, so the people will see me different way. “

That day in 1972 was also momentous for Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong "Nick" Ut, then just 21-years-old. He’d driven the 50 kilometres from Saigon to Trang Bang that morning because Communist Vietnamese forces were in the area. It was a front line, and he expected to take some combat photographs.

Catalysed sentiment

Instead he captured one of the famous war photos of all time - an anti-war photo many would say - since his picture of Kim Phuc’s agony catalysed negative sentiment about the Vietnam war in the United States.

At the time, Ut remembers, he was mostly worried about a little girl whose flesh was still burning from the jellied petrol that makes napalm such a horrifying weapon.

"I cried when I saw her running," Ut told AP recently "If I don't help her - if something happened and she died - I think I'd kill myself after that."

Ut and other journalists took Kim to a nearby hospital and pushed for her to get the best available treatment in a US-run facility, once her condition was stable. She endured more than a year of painful skin grafts and operations, a child bewildered by what had happened to her life.

“When I went home, I (felt) alone, with the wounds, the pain, the scars, the nightmares, “ she says, “and (I had) very low self esteem. I was at the beginning in my life. I’m so thankful my family, teachers, friends, is help me to cope. But of course it was not easy.”

When the US retreated from Vietnam in 1975, the Communist government in Hanoi made Kim into a model citizen, a human testament to the horrific war that had been visited upon the Vietnamese people. She got special attention and was allowed to go to Cuba to study medicine.

She met the man who became her husband there, another Vietnamese student. But the little girl in the picture - by now an adult - wasn’t happy. The tight strictures of Communist states didn’t suit her, she says.

“I always looking for freedom in my mind. And that opportunity to be free,” Kim remembers.

Spy novel adventure

What followed was adventure worthy of a spy novel. On their way back from a honeymoon in Moscow to their studies in Cuba, Kim and her new husband slipped away from their fellow passengers and defected to Canada during a refueling stopover in Gander, Newfoundland. It was 1992.

“We stayed in Canada with no money no friends, no knowledge of the culture, nothing,” she remembers now, “but we had each other and we had faith. So I believe in Canada, it’s a free country,”

Her words say it all. Kim is a proud Canadian these days. But she’s never lost touch with her homeland and the suffering of innocents caught in war. From her home in a town east of Toronto, she runs the Kim Foundation International. Go to their website and the first thing you see is that photo from 1972.

The organisation works with children affected by conflict or disability in countries around the world. Kim has also been a special ambassador for UNESCO, promoting peace and goodwill among nations. And it all began with a photograph.

“I am so proud of that picture, and I consider it a really powerful gift for me, to use that to work for peace., “ says Kim, “I found a purpose in my life.


Al Jazeera
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