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The war took my childhood away, I went through 16 operations – Napalm Girl

Almost half a century ago, she was a traumatized young girl suffering from severe burns as a result of a napalm strike in Vietnam. Today, she’s leading a charity that seeks to protect children affected by wars. Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the ‘Napalm Girl’ from the famous photo that exposed the terrifying reality of the Vietnam War and the founder of the Kim Foundation, joins us on SophieCo.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Phan Thi Kim Phuc, survivor of a napalm strike in the Vietnam War and author of the Fire Road book, welcome to the show, it is great to have you with us today. So I want to go back and start with a picture that everyone knows, this picture depicting you running naked in fear has become the symbol of all the horror and desperation of the Vietnam War. Forty seven years on, do you remember what happened on the day this photo was taken? 

Kim Phuc: Yes, actually, I was 9 years old when that picture was taken, in 1972. Avidly, I remember everything on that day. As children, we were allowed to play in the temple near the bomb shelter. And I remember on June 8, after lunch, we got to play around. And suddenly the soldiers yelled to the children asked us to run out of that temple. So I remember, I was one of them, of the children. I got in the front of the temple. Then, I saw the airplane go towards me, so loud and so close. And I just stood right there, on highway One, because I got to the highway One. And so, I remember, as a child, I just stood right there, and then I saw everything. I saw the four bombs landing like that. Then, I heard the noise, bup-bup, bup-bup! Like that, and then, suddenly, the fire was everywhere around me, and my clothes were burned off by the fire. And I saw the fire was over my left arm, and then, like that, and I used my right hand, I web it up. Then... I still remember my thought at that moment: “Oh my goodness, I got burned, so I would be ugly, and people would see me in a different way!” But at that moment, I was so scared and  terrified. I didn't see anybody at that moment. Then, I stopped thinking about everything, just ran out of that fire, and then I saw my brothers, and my cousin, and some of the soldiers right there. Then we kept running and running. I remember I ran for a while, until I felt so tired that I couldn’t run anymore. Then I stopped and cried out: “Too hot, too hot!” And I remember, one of the soldiers tried to help me, he gave me some water to drink, and he tried to help me. He poured water over me. Then I lost consciousness. I didn't remember anything else, that moment. 

SS: So, your body was severely burned, and you barely survived, and your book, Fire Road, actually speaks about your path to recovery. How long did it take you to bring yourself back together, and can you share you are fully healed now?   

KP: Wow, it's a long journey. Absolutely. I stayed in the hospital for 14 months, and I went through 16 operations at that time, and the last one, in 1984, I went to Germany for my last operation, in Ludwigshafen. Of course, day by day, I had to go through a lot of pain, and trauma, and nightmares, and very low self-esteem. Not only just the scar I have from the napalm, and the pain from that wound, but my heart was in trouble, and I really, really endured a lot, yeah. During the time as, before I became a teenager, and during the time as I was teenager, and growing up every day, I can use the words just like survivor, but it is a miracle. I went through all of this, the pain, physical and emotional, everything. And right now, I have to say to you that my life is a miracle. 

SS: This photograph by AP photographer Nick Ut is set to be a transformative moment that changed the course of the Vietnam War. How much has it changed your life? 

KP: Well, it's changed my life forever. It's a lot. I used to be the normal girl, living like everyone else around the world, as a normal child, but now, I was different. The difference is, my body seemed to me, like... Every time I looked at my scars, I was so scared, because it's so ugly. And, you know, living in where I come from, the weather is hot and hotter. So, with the burn, I endured a lot of pain. So I lost everything that I had as a child, my childhood, my everything. After the war, we had nothing left but suffering, yeah. And so... But one thing I had, I had a dream, and I made my dream big, and I kept my dream alive. Because the time I spent at the hospital, for a long time, 14 months, all the doctors and nurses, they would really inspire me. Whenever I needed them, they were there to help me. So that is a wonderful thing that I have in me. Despite of all the circumstances, I chose to have a dream and come home. I am so thankful that I had family who love me, teachers, everybody around me to help me. I just focused on studies. That is how my life go on, like that. 

SS: How did your life take its course after you recovered? I mean, you're obviously a very courageous woman who followed the dream, established this beautiful organisation which  helps tons of people. But what about you as a woman? I look at you now and you're just so beautiful... 

KP: Thank you! 

SS: Did you manage to build a family? Did you manage to live a regular life like any beautiful woman like you would? 

KP: Yes, I needed a lot of encouragement. Yes, and I needed a look back. I'm so thankful that I have faith. And that faith in Jesus has helped me find peace and joy and heal my heart. And that is the really turning point in my life because the time when I was in high school, the time when I got into medicine school and I thought I got my dream, but then I lost my dream. I couldn't do as I wished. Then I was just seeking and seeking the true purpose why me, why I have to suffer. And finally I found the truth and I found my purpose, I found my answer. 

SS: And what is the answer? 

KP: The answer is...  I always ask Why me, why I have to suffer that much, emotionally, physically, everything... And that is my answer. Right now I know that God had a plan for that little girl. I was in Vietnam on Highway One in 1972, I was in the wrong road, the wrong place at the wrong time, but right now I'm at the right time and in the right place. I have a chance to be alive and I have opportunity to get back to... I know the purpose for my life now, I have a chance to help all the children who suffer at war or who are underprivileged around the world, so I have that compassion. I can help them because I understand what they need just like me, a little girl, I needed peace, I needed joy, I needed my childhood, I needed to be loved - everything that the children need. So now that is my life. I can give them hope. Every time I meet children who suffer I can tell them “you always have hope”. Because like me, I went through so much and I have a picture I can show them and I have a scar to show them, and my life is so true and so real so I make them think: “Yet that little girl can do it, so I can do it too”. That is the answer. 

SS: This iconic image made you sort of an anti-war symbol for the Vietnamese government. I even heard that you were prevented from going to school as you simply had no time for it because you were always being interviewed and you had to go to events and show up to this official event or that official event. Do you think, you were used as a propaganda tool? Did you feel that way, or maybe later on, analysing your role…? 

KP: Yeah, that is really true. I didn't lie that picture at that time because the more that picture got famous, the more it cost my private life and I didn't like it at all. But, you know, everyone have a choice to make, and I made my decision that I'm seeking freedom. I had no choice then, but now I am Canadian, I have freedom. I have a choice. For many years it seemed like that picture controlled me. But now I have the choice. I have a desire and I want to... You know, every time I look at that picture... And when I had my first child Thomas, I hold my baby, and I looked that picture, my picture, at that moment I realised that as a mother “how can I see my children suffer like that little girl?” And I wanted to protect them, not only my baby but the children around the world. And so the moment that picture was taken, it was a really big impact. It touched my heart. And then at the same time I have freedom. And then I can make my choice to go back to work with that picture and I can see that that picture, I realised that the picture is a powerful gift for me as a mother to do something, my best to protect the children around the world. And for me that is wonderful. And I'm so thankful for that picture is really the impact in my life. 

SS: You've mentioned during this talk of ours that back then, you know, you hated everyone who had caused you so much suffering.I remember, I read it somewhere that in 1996 you were approached by a United States veteran who said he coordinated this South Vietnamese air strike which you were caught in and apologised to you. Now, he later admitted that he had nothing to do with this attack and his confession was driven by emotion. Do you believe that United States owes you and the Vietnamese apology for what happened? 

KP: For me, since I’m working on my life, I learn about forgiveness and the forgiveness not just at the moment, on that day, but I continue to learn forgiveness every single day, practicing. And for me is this that I never let anything from outside that affected my heart. I just remain in peace and joy because I learned that the hard way that happen, you know, the war and the people and I couldn't control what they are doing or what they're talking about me or the circumstances. I cannot control the circumstances but I can control how I respond. So I think that war happens and it makes everybody suffer. But for me, I do my best, I don't think, anybody owes me a... But I owe people the love. With that love I can make the world a much better place to live. And for me I focus on that.   

SS: You’re doing fundraising for organisations that seek to protect children affected by wars. I heard that NGOs often get to hear from donors that “well, the sources are limited and even strain, so we want to pick the most urgent causes”. This, I guess, makes them compete for funds in a weird way where the more horrors they talk about the more money they could get. Did your foundation ever run across an organisation that would try to blow some issues out of proportion to get more funding? 

KP: No not at all. My foundation is not big enough to do that kind of fundraising. My foundation did focus on very... We have a mission, we focus on children who are victims of war. For example, we build schools. We know that education is a very important for children and we build... We are a partnership with another foundation. We build the hospital and we often help children and this year I built partnership with the library for children organisation and we want to build the library for children in the place where they drop bombs and kill children. I want to honor that and that is one of my dreams.

SS: Kim Phuc,thank you very much for this interview. Thank you for your extraordinary courage and force to love regardless anything. We were talking to Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the famous Napalm Girl, author of the Fire Road book and the founder of the Kim Foundation, discussing the scars that armed conflicts leave on children caught up in the fray.  

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