Escape from fire and foto

Article about Kim Phuc

Escape from fire and foto

When at the end of the meal the fortune cookies arrive with the bill in the restaurant “Mandarin” in the Canadian Ajax, Kim gets a small narrow note from her purse.   It’s the piece of paper from the fortune cookie she set out to eat 26 years ago during her first visit to an Asian restaurant in Toronto. A saying that scared her up rather than built her up.   Because it promised her exactly what she hoped to escape from in 1992 with her escape to Canada. “Your destiny is to be famous“.

Day 1 of her tragic, uninvited fame was June 10, 1972, when all the major newspapers around the world printed the same photo that was taken in Trang Bang, South Vietnam: A little naked, burnt girl, screaming from a napalm cloud with her arms outstretched. At the same time that millions were shocked to see this picture, when Nixon angrily spoke of a “frame-up” about this photo, when anti-war demonstrators carried the picture through the streets, the nine-year-old Kim lay among the dead in the mortuary of the local children’s hospital. She was still alive, but she had been abandoned. Here she found her mother, who had been looking for her daughter for three days.  The child’s body was already infected with maggots.

The photo that made her famous as “Napalm Girl” she saw only 14 months after the first publication. When she had not died in the morgue, she was taken to an American hospital in Saigon. This specialized in the treatment of burns, deep, extensive burns, such as those left by Napalm. Every morning she screamed in pain in the so-called “burn bath”. 17 operations were performed on her.  After more than a year back home, her father showed her the photo for which photographer Nick Ut had meanwhile received the Pulitzer Prize.  “I was shocked and thought it was such an ugly photo,” Kim says. She was ashamed. Everyone had seen her naked.

And nobody had covered her up that June day. Not long, until everyone had their photo in the box. Yes, I asked myself, “Why doesn’t anyone help me?” she says today what she thought when she walked along this road, badly injured at the time.  More than a dozen war reporters were in Trang Bang that day. A small town, 60 kilometres north of Saigon, through which the current front line between Vietcong and the South Vietnamese army ran. The inhabitants had sought shelter in the temple. Then a bomber dropped a signal fire next to the temple. Everyone fled to the street – directly into the fire. The South Vietnamese army had dropped four napalm bombs. A film shows the explosion, an inferno.     “It’s so hot, it’s so hot,” shouted the girl as she ran along Route 1.  60 percent of her body were burned.

The now 55 year old is accustomed to looks that more or less stealthily search for her scars. And of course everyone who meets her instinctively does. Especially since the first impression is pure flawlessness. Small and dainty, an almost wrinkle-free, open face. She could also be 15 years younger. As always she wears a dress with long sleeves.   But if the sleeves slip while gesticulating or eating, it can be seen. They are not just scars, they are devastations that still cover their entire back today.

Nobody will ever be able to love me. Kim thought that for a long time. Other children avoided her. When she got older, she wanted to be a teenager like everyone else.  Wanted to wear all the clothes she liked, even short-sleeved ones. Wanted to go swimming. And made a date with boys. She wanted nothing more than to be normal. But she wasn’t normal, she was the girl in the photo.   When that picture was taken, no one could have guessed what power it would develop. But this defenseless, wounded, naked, screaming child symbolizes the brutality of war more than any photo motif had ever done. The years, the decades passed, but the effect remained the same.

The effect this had on Kim Phuc is not easy to describe. Because the easiest way to describe and classify it is by comparison. But there is nothing comparable.  Like a survivor forever trapped in the worst moment of his life. A worldwide victim icon for life. Just as she had fled from the fire at that time, she now tried to run away from the photo.  But she could not escape it. She was the living, demonstrable symbol of the entire Vietnam War with all its injustice and mercilessness. And she was shown. “I had no life of my own. The Vietnamese government determined when I was allowed to study and where, which interviews I should give, where I should travel and speak, on which stages I should perform.

 And she continues: “I hated everything, the photo, my fate, my life”. She thought of suicide. “I just wanted everything to end.“  She was looking for support, somewhere. At the age of 19 she converted to Christianity. It helped and still helps her. But the real turning point came nine years later.

For a long time she wanted to leave Vietnam, where she could never have been anything other than the “Napalm Girl”. She even thought about doing it like the Boat People. Then she asked to be allowed to study abroad. She was allowed to study in Cuba.     One of the other Vietnamese students in Havana was Bui Huy Toan, a North Vietnamese, one Kim would have called an enemy.  He proved that she was wrong. Yes, she could be loved. They got married in the summer of 1992. They were still Vietnamese nationals, there were not many options for their honeymoon. They chose Moscow. And just before the plane stopped over in Newfoundland on its way back to Havana, Kim explained to her husband what she had chosen. She would not travel on, but apply for asylum in Canada.

Her surprised husband finally agreed, albeit with great fear. “I hardly slept in Canada in the first few weeks,” he says. But Kim was really happy. Because she had a plan.  Finally a normal life, anonymous in a foreign country, no more icon, no longer famous, no Napalm Girl, only Kim Phuc, who wants a family. In the end it was a spontaneous idea. They didn’t know anyone in the country. And Kim deliberately renounced a promibonus, which she could have had here, too. They were refugees like others with the same problems.  In 1994, Kim became what she had so long believed she could never become, mother. The first of two sons was born. She had what she always wanted. Shortly afterwards she noticed two women from her house who came again and again. “I didn’t go out anymore, I hid,” Kim says. Because she knew who was waiting, journalists.  She had been found.

Two years later she gave a speech at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. She spoke mainly of reconciliation.     She personally offered her forgiveness to a former US soldier who had played a role in the planning of the bombing raid and had also come to the memorial. Kim Phuc had accepted that she would always remain the “Napalm Girl”. But she never wanted to be the hostage of a photo again. She wanted to decide for herself, define her role as an icon of the war victims herself. “Today I see the photo as a gift,” she says, “it shows what war means. It can make a difference”.

Kim Phuc set up a foundation to care for war-ravaged children. Among other things, she collects donations for hospitals in war zones. And she can be very convincing with her story. “I always wanted to become a doctor in order to be able to help directly. Unfortunately that was not possible. But now I have found a way to do much more for the children in war,” she says. She became a goodwill ambassador for peace and reconciliation for UNESCO. And when she speaks, as she does every year in front of thousands, she always says this sentence: “We can’t change the past, but we can heal the future. It is like a mantra that she has to remember again and again for herself. No, it cannot undo anything, not the run through the fire, not the day between the dead children, not the pain that still tortures them today almost every day. What she can do and has done, leave bitterness and hatred behind her. And if she of all people can do that, it is not a story from the past.  Especially today, in times of hatred, which always finds a goal without looking for a reason, that is a strong message.

The photo of her has already become part of pop culture. Banksy used it for a critical-ironic collage. Samba dancers in Rio recreated the scene. And conspiracy theorists also work their way through it. An American newspaper published a bizarre letter to the editor. It claims that Kim’s mother burned her daughter and received money from the photographers. That really hurt Kim. And she was also irritated when she learned that Facebook had deleted her photo two years ago. It was her nudity that didn’t fit into a control algorithm that didn’t include stories like hers. But she was very impressed by the worldwide wave of protest. Even the Norwegian Prime Minister had intervened on Facebook, which finally corrected her decision. Did an apology ever come from Facebook? “No,” Kim says, “nobody came forward. But I didn’t expect that either.”

   Even when she was away from this road in Trang Bang Kim Phuc had to walk very far to finally escape and arrive. Today she lives in a small town near Toronto. It’s the kind of retort town you could say about: Nothing ever happens here.  But what some would call boring is reassuring for others who don’t need drama in their lives anymore. In one of the very quiet streets of Ajax, all similar in brick and trees, Kim lives in a small house with her husband, sons and parents.  She has come to rest. Only recently she learned that the bombing was not a friendly fire, so she accidentally hit her own people. The order, however, was to win the battle without regard to collateral damage. She used to be angry at the news that she had been sacrificed and her two cousins who died in the attack. Today she only says, “This is war.”

Kim Phuc now lives in that part of Canada where half a century ago many US conscientious objectors had fled who did not want to go to Vietnam. Maybe it’s true what is said again and again, but it can never be proven that Kim’s photo abbreviated the Vietnam War. At least now she is doing everything she can with her means, that no war has to be shortened anymore, because it doesn’t take place any more.   And yes, she will probably have to resign herself to being famous for a very long time to come.

Heidrun Hannusch