Phan Thi Kim Phúc was forever changed on June 8, 1972 when her village of Trang Bang was bombed in the Vietnam War. Only nine years old at the time, she never thought her darkest nightmare would become a reality as she ran screaming and naked, her clothes and the skin of her back burned off with napalm. And she never could have guessed her agony would be captured for a moment in time behind the lens of AP photographer Nick Út, only later realizing it was she who captured the world’s attention and forever changed its perspective on war.
Phúc is no longer solely defined by her nine-year-old self in Út’s iconic “The Girl in the Picture,” but has become a global inspiration through her work as one of the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassadors for Peace. She also created the Kim Foundation International, which helps young war victims. This Thursday, January 19, she will speak at the Lobero Theatre for the event 40 Years of Forgiveness: A Conversation with Kim Phúc, presented by Friendship Tours World Travel.
Phúc recently spoke by phone with the Independent about forgiving her attackers, keeping contact with Út, and helping others understand the brutal realities of war.
You personally met and forgave one of the men who coordinated the air strike. Do you think every victim of war should forgive their attackers? I think that is a thing we need to do. For me, it was a great reconciliation between the people like me who are victims of war and the soldiers who do the work. After the war, both of us become victims but of different kinds. I was no longer an innocent child and he was a solider who did work but had to be in a horrific war. Later he becomes another kind of victim, so I think both of us need to learn how to forgive. Through my experiences, I was living with anger and hatred, which was a really bad thing for me. Then I learned how to forgive, and it freed me from hatred and helped me a lot.
Different people have used the photo of you for many different purposes. If you could have the photo tell your message, what would you want the world to know? No more war. Live with love and peace. That is my message.
I understand you are still close to the photographer and even call him Uncle Út. He helped me to the hospital and he saved me, so I deeply appreciate what he did for me. I treasure him. I’m grateful that he did more than his work. He didn’t only take a picture but, as a human being, he helped me, and that is something I never take for granted. I’m always so thankful for his work and his help. He is so sweet. He just called me. He calls all the time, and seems like he is in the family. We have a very good relationship and we care for each other.
You never allowed yourself to be a victim of war. What type of action should those hurt by war take today? Through my experiences, I have practiced to pray for my enemy. I count my blessings and do things to help others. This helps me reconcile that directly or indirectly. What I do best is simple for me — I try to be a blessing, I go out to help. I have my foundation, I help the children who are victims of war, and I talk about kids and I help people to understand how horrible war is and how beautiful the world can be if we can live with love, hope, and forgiveness. So if everyone can learn that then we don’t need war at all. That is the action that I have to do, and I encourage people in the same situations to do it. Follow up and do good things to help each other.
Kim, you remind me of a phoenix, rising from the ashes of war to become a brilliantly new and inspiring woman. What helped you move past the dark times? I never focus on the pain or the sorrow. If I did live that way it will not help me at all, and if it doesn’t help me how can I help others? I cannot be joyful, excited — I cannot find the purpose of my life if I lived in that way all the time. For now it has changed. I have the choice to choose and I thank God I have made the good decision to move on. In Spanish, adelante, adelante! (laughs). In the deep of my heart I want to thank God, the doctor and nurses, my family, Nick Út, and everyone who was around to help me. I’m thankful for the people who did not just love me like “poor you,” but they loved me with true love, and that helped me a lot. I learned to never take their love for granted.
To people who had doubts about the authenticity of the photo, what would you like them to understand about the realities of war? Loss, pain, hurt, disappointment. That is reality, and those are all kinds of negatives that I went through. Honestly, I can tell you after 40 years I still have a lot of pain. That is the reality and that is a big, big challenge for me every day that I have to face. If I didn’t have faith I don’t know where I would be. I went through a darkness, a lot of disappointment, hopelessness, had no more dreams. I had very low self esteem for a long, long time. I always asked, “Why me? Why do I have to suffer like that?” I had a little dream, but I never understood it when I was a child. Where I come from the weather is very hot most of the time. When I saw other girls, my friends, they wore short-sleeve blouses and they looked very beautiful. I wished that one day I can wear that and have no scars. I just looked at them and they just looked so beautiful and so happy, but I wasn’t. I always wore the long-sleeve blouses over the scars. Physically, I suffer a lot of pain, and that is the reality for me. It is also the reality for years and years and for so many generations. So many years we have to deal with all that pain.
Personally, I think your scars are beautiful because I think they are a reminder that you are stronger than war. Yes, that is right! I am so thankful that God allowed me to learn from my suffering, to not be bitter or live with the negative all the time. But I had to go through that to learn this. Now I am so happy that I am in the situation where I am because through that pain it makes me stronger and helps me learn the value of peace, of freedom, of learning forgiveness. I value so many things in my life, so that’s why I am going to Santa Barbara to tell all the lessons I have learned. I am so looking forward to it.
What one piece of advice would you want to give to your son and his generation? I would like to advise the people of generations young and old to learn how to live with true love, with love and hope and forgiveness. That is my wish and I advise them that you don’t have to be someone in particular to help somebody else. Just be a blessing and then you can change the whole world. My challenge for them that I really want to share is if that little girl can do it then everyone can do it too. The bottom line of my message, my advice, is to avoid war. No more war if everyone can learn the things like that.
Kim Phúc will discuss 40 Years of Forgiveness on Thursday, January 19, at 7 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). The event will be followed by a private reception with Phúc. For tickets, call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.