‘Napalm girl’ Kim Phuc has come a long way since she was photographed 50 years ago today

‘Everyone can live with love, with hope, and forgiveness. If everyone can learn to live like that, we absolutely don’t need war’

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A photograph featuring a young girl naked and screaming in the streets during the Vietnam War — which has become an iconic anti-war symbol — is sending a message of hope 50 years later.

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“Based on that picture, I did want to tell people, ‘Look how horrible war is,’” Kim Phuc, who was nine years old when the photo was taken, told the Toronto Star. “But, look, right now, my life, how beautiful the world can be … Everyone can live with love, with hope, and forgiveness. If everyone can learn to live like that, we absolutely don’t need war.”

Phuc has been living in Canada since the early 1990s after seeking political asylum. She has come a long way from the village where Associated Press photographer Nick Ut took her picture.

After hearing about fighting in Trang Bang, northeast of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), Ut went to the scene, he said in a Washington Post op-ed. He described seeing “rows of bodies by the side of the road” and hundreds of people fleeing their homes to seek refuge.

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On June 8, 1972, as Ut was preparing to leave, a plane dropped four napalm bombs on the village.

“I can still see so vividly the old woman carrying a baby who died in front of my camera and another woman carrying a small child with his skin coming off,” he wrote.

Then, he heard the screams of a child.

“I looked through my Leica viewfinder to see a young girl who had pulled off her burning clothes and was running toward me,” he said, as he took her picture.

He put his equipment down and went to help her and other nearby children. He drove to the hospital and urged doctors to help her, even though they were already flooded with injured soldiers. She spent more than a year in the burn unit. On her last day, Ut visited her with small gifts. He didn’t see her again until 1989, when Phuc was studying in Cuba with her fiance.

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After the couple was married, he said, they planned a honeymoon in Moscow. They saw it as an opportunity to defect to Canada when the plane stopped to refuel in Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador on its way back to Cuba.

“The Canadians initially refused to accept her. But upon learning that she was the girl in the famous photo, she and Toan (her husband) were granted amnesty,” said Ut.

In this March 29, 2012 photo, Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut visits Kim Phuc’s house near the place he took his famous Pulitzer Prize winning photograph.
In this March 29, 2012 photo, Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut visits Kim Phuc’s house near the place he took his famous Pulitzer Prize winning photograph. Photo by AP Photo/Na Son Nguyen

Phuc lives in Ajax, Ont. and is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the Culture of Peace. She told the Toronto Star she still considers Ut a part of the family and calls him her “hero.”

Ut, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1973, sees parallels between what happened 50 years ago in Vietnam and what is currently happening in Ukraine.

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“I hope, just like I did with my photo, that they will also bring up photos and images that will stop the war,” he told the Toronto Star.

At first, when the photo came out, Phuc said she was embarrassed. But her perspective has since shifted. When visiting a burn unit in Uganda, she showed the picture to a woman who was struggling. She told her not to give up and to “have a little bit of hope,” she said to the Toronto Star. Sharing her story helped, she said, and the woman started to talk and drink water again.

In May, Ut and Phuc presented Pope Francis with a signed copy of the photograph. It has become a “powerful gift” for Phuc, she told CNN, because she can use it to “work for peace.”

“Now I can look back and embrace it,” she said. “I’m so thankful that (Ut) could record that moment of history and record the horror of war, which can change the whole world. And that moment changed my attitude and my belief that I can keep my dream alive to help others.”

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