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Vietnam ‘napalm girl,’ 40 years later
Lensman of iconic photo reunites with the woman whose life he saved in ‘72
She will always be naked after blobs of sticky napalm melted through her clothes and layers of skin like jellied lava.
She will always be a victim without a name.
It only took a second for Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut to snap the iconic black-and-white image 40 years ago. It communicated the horrors of the Vietnam War in a way words could never describe.
But beneath the photo lies a lesser-known story. It’s the tale of a dying child and a young photographer brought together by chance. A moment that would serve as her savior and her curse on a journey to understand life’s plan for her.
“I really wanted to escape from that little girl,” says Kim Phuc, now 49. “But it seems to me that the picture didn’t let me go.”
It was June 8, 1972, when Kim heard the soldier’s 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 Kim’s left arm. The threads of her cotton clothes evaporated on contact. Trees became angry torches. Searing pain bit through skin and muscle.
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 photo and the girl
Mr. Ut, the 21-year-old Vietnamese photographer who took the picture, drove her 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 Mr. 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 the image of the little girl emerged, everyone feared it would be rejected because of the news agency’s strict policy against nudity.
A couple of days after the image shocked the world, another journalist found out the little girl had survived the attack.
Christopher Wain, a correspondent for the British Independent Television Network, fought to have her transferred to the American-run Barsky unit. It 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. I woke up with a terrible fear.”
Thirty percent of Kim’s tiny body was scorched raw by third-degree burns, though her face somehow remained untouched. Over time, her melted flesh began to heal.
After multiple skin grafts and surgeries, Kim was finally allowed to leave, 13 months after the bombing. She had seen Mr. 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 Kim largely remained unknown except to those living in her tiny village near the Cambodian border. Mr. Ut and a few other journalists sometimes visited her, but that stopped after 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 youngster, 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 communist leaders realized the propaganda value of the “napalm 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, but the rage inside began to build and consume her.
“I wanted to escape that picture,” she said. “I got burned by napalm, and I became a victim of war … but growing up then, I became another kind of victim.”
One day, while visiting a library, Ms. Phuc found a Bible. For the first time, she started believing her life had a plan.
Then suddenly, once again, the photo that had given her unwanted fame brought opportunity.
She traveled 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.
While at school, she met a young Vietnamese man. She had never thought 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 honeymoon in Moscow. On the flight back to Cuba, the newlyweds defected during a refueling stop in Canada. She was free.
“I have a husband and a new life and want to be normal like everyone else,” she said.
The media eventually found Mrs. Phuc living near Toronto, and she decided she needed to take control of her story. A book was written in 1999 and a documentary came out, at last the way she wanted it told.
After four decades and now a mother of two sons, she can look at the picture of herself running naked and understand why it remains so powerful. It had saved her, tested her and ultimately freed her.
“Most of the people, they know my picture, but there’s very few that know about my life,” she said. “I’m so thankful that … I can accept the picture as a powerful gift. Then it is my choice. Then I can work with it for peace.”
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