"Girl in the Picture" headlines Faith Week

Thursday, January 27, 2011

  • The famous shot by Nick Ut shows Kim, centre, fleeing a napalm strike during the Vietnam War

    The famous shot by Nick Ut shows Kim, centre, fleeing a napalm strike during the Vietnam War

Written by Greg Beneteau

There are few experiences as painful as the blistering heat of a napalm burn.

The gasoline gel mixture, used extensively by American bombers during the Vietnam War, burns at temperatures between 800 and 1200 degrees Celsius, hot enough to burn flesh to the bone. It's so hot, pouring water onto a wound causes it to boil, deepening the burns.

The soldiers who came to the aid 9-year-old Kim Phuc after a South Vietnamese warplane accidentally dropped napalm on a group of civilians fleeing fighting in the village of Trang Bang were unaware of this. They dumped their canteens on the girl’s searing, naked flesh (her clothes had all been burned off) in an effort to help.

Instead, Phuc passed out from the pain.

That fateful day marked the beginning of a long and difficult journey for the now-adult Phuc, who shared her insights on faith and forgiveness as part of Faith Week at the University of Guelph.

"Sometimes, a terrible thing can happen in our lives," Phuc told a packed crowd at War Memorial Hall at U of G. "If we are lucky, we can learn from that experience. It can even make us stronger."

Phuc gained international recognition after Associated Press photographer Nick Ut captured the aftermath of the napalm strike on camera. Ut would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his shot, and "the girl in the picture" became a symbol of the horrors of war.

Ut took the girl , who suffered second and third-degree burns on her back and left side, to the hospital, where she was placed in the "black ward" -  for those expected to die.

Against all odds, she survived. Some Americans later learned of Phuc's plight and arranged to have her transfered to a clinic that specialized in treating burns.

Phuc said it was the power of forgiveness that helped overcome the challenges she would face: the 14-month stay in the hospital, the countless operations, and later the oppressive existence living under Communist rule, being used as propaganda tool.

"I wasn't a political person... I wanted to study medicine, to give back what had been given to me. But in my country, we were not free to make our own choices," she said.

Phuc, who converted to Christianity in her late teens, cited the words of Luke from the New Testament: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you."

She also learned to count her blessings: her supportive and loving family, the fact that she had survived the napalm strike, which had killed two of her younger cousins.

While studying at university in Cuba, Phuc met fellow Vietnamese student Bui Huy Toan. The two married in 1992 and went on honeymoon in Russia. During a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, the couple asked for political asylum in Canada, which was granted.

While she said she forgives those who caused her pain, she does not forget; today, she works with the United Nations and the Kim Phuc Foundation, a charity she founded in 1997, to assist children displaced by conflict.

Despite the hardships she had endured, Phuc insisted that "the power of love and forgiveness is more powerful than any weapon of war."

"You can lose everything, but if you have family love and God's love, you have everything."

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