Kim Phuc was long known as “the girl in the picture” before she was widely known by her personal name.
Phan Thi Kim Phúc (b. 1963) was the girl in the Pulitzer Prize-winning picture taken on June 8, 1972, by AP photographer Nick Ut. That graphic picture shows Kim at nine years of age running naked on a road out of her village in South Vietnam after being severely burned on her back and arms by a napalm bomb attack.
About ten years later, Ms. Phuc was admitted to medical school in Saigon, but was withdrawn by the Vietnamese government who wanted to use her for propaganda purposes. Partly because of her unhappiness with that development, at Christmastime in 1982 she converted to Christianity.
In 1986 Kim was sent to study at the University of Havana in Cuba. There she met Bui Huy Toan, another Vietnamese student, and they married in 1992. On the way back to Cuba from their honeymoon in Moscow, the airplane made a refueling stop in Newfoundland. The newlyweds left the plane and asked for political asylum in Canada, which was granted.
Kim became a Canadian citizen the following year, and she continues to live in Canada with her husband and two sons, who are now 17 and 13.
Last Monday (7/4) Kim was the keynote speaker at the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America summer conference, which met on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, VA. I had the privilege of attending that conference and of meeting Kim and hearing her speak.
I don’t know when I have ever seen a more radiant, joyous, sweet-spirited person.
But she hasn’t always been that way. She spent years in physical pain, having seventeen operations over the twelve years after her injuries. Then, she was bitter at having been bombed in her village, of having had to suffer so much, and of having to bear such scars on her body.
She eventually realized that to be free she had to learn to forgive. She told the rapt audience who heard her speak last week, “It was hard, but I became free.”
Kim also emphasized that “forgiveness is a choice.” And it is a choice she encouraged all her listeners to make, forgiving anyone and everyone toward whom they harbor resentment or grudges.
Since hearing her speak, I have bought The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War (2000), her biography written by Denise Chong. I am eager to learn more of her inspiring story.
From now on when I hear about Kim Phuc, I will not think of her as “the girl in the picture.” Rather, I will remember her radiant face and her marvelous message on the power of forgiveness.
And I will remember her closing words: “Don’t see the little girl calling out in pain and fear. See her as crying out for peace.”