witness: Kim Phuc

Growing up in the 1960’s in London I experienced the Vietnam War as a series of images. The most graphic image was the execution of a young man on camera. It was a moment in my upbringing that I shall never forget when the realities of war came into everyone’s living room.

There were many pictures of the war appearing every day in our newspapers. I remember going to Holborn library in Theobalds Road on a sunny Saturday morning in 1968 to look up a book on the war (it was a military history written by an American and covered the conflict from Dien Bien Phu to the latest bombings of the north by the B52’s.).

The above picture was taken by the Vietnemese photographer Nick Ut on June 8th 1972. I was 19 years of age at the time. I may very well have sat with my family watching the ITN “News At Ten” when there would have been a report by one of their  war correspondents Christopher Wain.

Dressed in combat gear (as all the correspondents had to) he went out to cover a local village where some Viet Cong incursion had been reported. What happened that day was that he witnessed the horror of the dreaded burning material Nepalm being dropped on innocent villagers. One child was caught in the midst of the blast.. her clothes were literally burn off of her and she ran to get help, unable to speak from the sheer horror of what was happening to her.

In one of the great pieces of timing and sheer fortune Nick Ut was able to take the photograph that you can see above which in many ways became the iconic image of the horrors of that war (indeed any war).

What I did not know was that she ran towards Christopher who then did his best to comfort the child and get her into hospital.

Kim had many many operations in the next year and was eventually to become something of a hero and icon in the reunited North Vietnam after the war. She found her role stultifying and wanted to escape to a new freedom and managed to use a stop in Canada whilst going to Russia on her honeymoon, to escape to a new life in the west.

A deeply believing Christian, she has spent her life since in spreading the message of reconciliation and forgiveness. These are her words from a television interview in 2008:

Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?
Kim Phúc, NPR in 2008

A few days ago I was listening to the World Service of the BBC when I heard a piece about Kim (whose name I never really knew until then). It was a reunion between her and her rescuer Christopher Wain.  Listen to it and judge for yourself… it is powerful and recalls the events of that day. Think of the picture and how it has become such a powerful image of that time and maybe find out about the remarkable lady who was that burnt girl in that picture and has since done so much to promote peace and forgiveness.

The link is:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p007xycr

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