Q&A with Kim Phuc Phan Thi
Known as the ‘Napalm Girl’, Kim Phuc is recognised globally as the 9-year-old photographed running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War, which was recently voted the most iconic photo of all time. Kim spoke to Jess Lester about how the bombs led her to Christ, the importance of practising forgiveness and speaking to children about suffering.
Jess Lester: You were badly burned on 8th June 1972, following the drop of four napalm bombs near your home in South Vietnam. How would you describe that horrific moment?
Kim Phuc: That day, the children had been given permission to play inside the temple near the bomb shelter. We’d just had lunch when the South Vietnamese soldiers who were protecting us there saw the colour mark of a bomb drop inside the temple area. They told us to run. I remember running to the front of the temple and getting onto the highway and I saw an airplane. It was so close to us, travelling fast and it was so loud. As I looked up, I saw four bombs landing. I closed my eyes and heard the bang, and when I opened them again there was fire everywhere around me. The fire was all over my body and it had burnt off my clothes. I ran out of the fire and caught up with my brothers, cousins and the soldiers. We ran for a while on the highway until I was too tired to run any more. We saw people on the road in the distance and I cried out: “Too hot. Too hot.” It was then that my picture was taken. One of the soldiers gave me some water to drink and tried to help me by pouring water over my burnt body...I lost consciousness from the pain. From that moment until I came around in the hospital, I have no memories.
JL: What happened to you after you lost consciousness?
KP: My family and I were separated in the commotion and it took three days of looking for my family to find me...My mother had been searching the children’s hospitals in South Vietnam and couldn’t find me anywhere. It was my brother who found me, lying in the morgue – he and my mum planned to bury me as they walked to the entrance of the hospital. Luckily, they met my dad outside who had bumped into his old friend, a doctor, who realised I was still breathing, called an ambulance and took me to the burns clinic. Every morning the nurses would put me in a bath of cold water to make it easier for them to cut off my dead, burnt skin. It was so painful and I remember crying until I passed out from the pain.
JL: Your photograph, taken by Nick Ut, quickly spread around the world. When was the first time you saw it?
KP: After 14 months I was finally allowed home. My father took the picture out from a drawer one day and gave it to me. As a little girl, when I first saw the picture I didn’t like it. I was naked and in agony, hopeless and crying. I looked at myself in that picture and my brothers and cousins had all their clothes on and I was the only one who didn’t. I was so embarrassed. It was quite a long process for me to feel at peace with it. I learned that my picture had a big impact on people around the world, but it wasn’t until I became a mother that something really hit me deeply in the heart. I looked at the picture then and felt I had to do something – not only to protect my own child, but all the children around the world. It was so powerful, I felt: “Now I have a choice. I want to go and work with this picture for peace and to protect the children.” Since then, the picture has been a powerful gift and I am so thankful.
JL: What kind of scars were you left with – both physical and emotional?
KP: My scars have been a big part of my life. I grew up ‘normal’ like everyone else but after the war, having had my childhood destroyed and leaving me behind with a lot of scars – it was not easy. I was terrified of touching the scars. I remember comparing them to buffalo skin, which is rough and ugly and thick. Growing up with that scar over my neck, back and arm, I always asked: “Why me?” I hated it – I thought I’d never have a boyfriend or get married. I was really sad inside. Aged 11 or 12 it was easier, but as a teenager I cried the most. I would cover it up with long-sleeved blouses...I wanted to have friends but I struggled because I didn’t want them to look at my scars...I remember my first day home in the village after returning from hospital and seeing my friend. I waved and wanted to play with her, but when she saw my scars and saw I was different, she wouldn’t come near me. That’s when I truly knew I was different. I felt unfit to be loved. It broke my heart. I had a lot of nightmares from being so scared and traumatised.
JL: You say the bombs led you to Christ. How did that happen?
KP: I was raised in the traditional CaoDai religion – I was the fourth generation – but because of the bomb, I had difficulties in my spiritual journey. My suffering made me want to seek more. The questions always on my mind were: “Why do I have to suffer this much?” or “Why didn’t I die so I didn’t have to stay alive and suffer?” In the Cao Dai religion, the adults told me that the life I had lived before my own must have been bad – that I was a bad person – and that was why I had to suffer. But that was not [under] my control and it hurt me. I wanted to be a good person and be sinless. I wanted my life to be pure and good, but everything they told me to do to gain forgiveness didn’t work. Nobody knew how much I was hurting inside. I tried to move on, and threw myself into studying to be a doctor, but I couldn’t fulfil my dream because my school was shut down. Everything became so hard to deal with. That was the lowest point in my life, in 1982, when I just wanted to die. I thought after I was dead I wouldn’t have to suffer any more. But I really just wanted to find the truth – the answer – and my purpose...
JL: When was the first time you heard about Jesus?
KP: Nobody had witnessed to me about Christianity before, but one day in the library, where I spent my days studying – I poured over all of the religious books. Among these was the New Testament. I remember reading John 14:6 where Jesus says: “I am the way and the truth and the life...”I couldn’t figure it out. I had so many questions. I was living with my sister in Saigon, and my brother-in-law had a Christian cousin who came to visit. I asked so many questions and he tried to explain to me that “God is love” [1John 4:8], but I didn’t agree because of all my suffering. Eventually he invited me to church. The Saturday before I had been sitting outside on a bench and I looked up to the sky and yelled out: “God, are you real? Do you exist? Please help me. If you are real, I need you. I need a friend I can talk to and share my burden.” I felt I couldn’t carry the load any more. I was so lonely and isolated. I am so glad I accepted the invitation to go to church. I went to church and made a friend there. I went back again and again to satisfy my curiosity.
JL: What was the turning point for you?
KP: It took me a long time. It wasn’t until Christmas 1982 when the pastor explained about why we celebrate Christmas not only in Vietnam but all over the world that I gave my life to Jesus. He spoke about Jesus dying on the cross...for our sin – and that if we accept Jesus as our personal saviour that he will come into our hearts and bring peace. In that moment I knew I needed that peace. I needed someone to take my burden. I opened my heart and accepted Jesus for the first time...I knew that he had set me free and that was an amazing turning point. I continued to pray and the more I prayed, the more I had peace. I prayed for joy, for wisdom and more than anything, for forgiveness. I had so much anger in my heart and while sometimes I failed, I prayed that God would help me. He had the power to do that. He could do impossible things. I went through this process of suffering and pain to know peace and joy. As a child I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I remember thinking: “Now I am in the right place at the right time. Now I understand that I have the power to help people, because I under-stand other victims of tragedy.”
I believe that God had a plan for me– he looked down on me in the moment I was burnt and said: “I’m not finished with that little girl.” All that I went through – the physical, emotional and spiritual pain – means I can understand those who face pain. That’s why I started the Kim Foundation; I wanted to help people suffering, go out and meet them and show them how I held on to hope, how I’m still learning to forgive and the love I have for people. I hope that when they see me, when they hear about my life, that they will have hope. If nothing had happened to me, maybe I would’ve been lost forever, but now I know my purpose. And from that my entire family became Christians, and I am so thankful for that. They saw how my life changed, saw God working in me and how God is so real in my life.
JL: You have two grown-up sons, both working in full-time ministry. How did you share Jesus with them?
KP: When I was a child, I knew nothing about Jesus, but somehow ten years later I believed that God had a plan for me. He put something special in me – and that was seeking. My circumstances, which had seen me in sorrow and hopelessness, made me search for away to move on.
I introduced my own children to Jesus from a very early age. I wanted them to know about God’s love and the word of God. I knew the value of my relationship with Jesus and I wanted my sons to know that earlier than I did.
We went to church as a family and we read the Bible with them. We prayed together and let them see how God was real in our lives. I never forced it – I valued the freedom of choice in my own life, so I wanted to just show them God and let them learn so they could make a decision for their lives...They knew suffering was real – they could see that their mother had pain but that I had learned to forgive and move on. Teaching them to forgive was the most important thing for me...I showed them how learning to forgive those who hurt me gave me peace and joy in my life. And I was so happy to do that with them. I wish every child could have that. Now I have grandchildren, I am introducing them to the goodness of God too and have tried to give them the right foundation.
JL: How did forgiveness help you come to terms with the suffering in your life?
KP: In the beginning, learning to forgive was not easy for me. But I practised what I call the ‘three Ds’...desire, determination and discipline. I had to have the desire to move on and forgive, I had to be determined and I had to be disciplined, and practise actively praying for my enemies. I believe everyone can learn to do that, to be truly forgiving. Forgiveness is the most important thing in our lives; we know that humans aren’t perfect and that sometimes someone may wrong you, but learning to forgive is a beautiful thing because God also forgives us. Love is also important – it is a great command from God to “love one another” [John 13:34]. I remember struggling to love the ones who hurt me; I didn’t want to think about those people, but I had to come face to face with that. I couldn’t run away from it. I memorised verses like in Romans [3:10] where God says: “No one is righteous. None.” I realised that nobody is perfect. I started praying for those who wronged me – and eventually I realised that to pray for them every day, I must love them, and that softened my heart.
JL: If you were able to speak to the person who dropped the bomb that burnt you, would you want to say anything?
KP: That is my biggest dream. I don’t know who the pilot was that dropped the bomb. In my prayers I hope that he is alive and that if he is, that I could hug him. I want to tell him from my heart: “I love you. I pray for you. I forgive you.” We have to show love, hope and forgiveness because every person needs that – any nation, rich or poor, every human being needs those things.
JL: How do you feel now when you look at your scars?
KP: Now, every time I touch my scar I am so thankful. My scar reminds me that God is with me... I touch my scar and I love it – it humbles me, it makes me love people and do the work I am doing now. It takes me back to being that little girl, but now I have no upset or anger about it, I just go to the Lord and pray. And the more I pray, the more peace I have over my suffering. My scar makes me have more intimacy in my relationship with God. It’s the strength inside of me. My scar is a miracle.
JL: What would you say to a child who is struggling?
KP: I can say from my heart that there is always hope. God loves you and people love you – so do not give up on that hope. I almost gave up, but I’m so glad that I didn’t so that I can go and tell others about what God can do. When you face tragedy, open your mind to learning about and knowing God, then you won’t feel alone. There is always someone to help you. Love yourself– try not to think about the negative, because when you think about the negative, the negative things come along with it. It will keep you disappointed. Open your mind to being hopeful.
JL: If you could go back and tell your 9-year-old self something, what would it be?
KP: Kim, hang on in there. By God’s grace and mercy, you will be fine. God loves you and so you should love yourself. Because when you love yourself, you can move on and do much better.