On the morning of April 10, Kim Phuc, a victim of Vietnam War bombing, came to Belmont Hill as part of the Hunt Lecture Series to share her story. As a nine year old girl, Kim Phuc’s village was napalm-bombed by the South Vietnamese. Her clothes blown off and her body severely burned, Phuc was photographed by a reporter as she ran from the scene; the photograph went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, and now serves as a harsh reminder of the Vietnam War.
Kim Phuc’s story began in Trang Bang, a village in southern Vietnam, where she described herself as a very happy child, always laughing and spending time with her friends. Her parents owned a noodle shop, allowing them to live comfortably. “For nine years, I felt safe and loved,” explained Kim Phuc, “but then, on June 8th, 1972, the war came to my village.” After showing video footage from the documentary on her life of the planes bombing her village, Kim Phuc described the day that changed her life in greater detail. She was in the middle of the blast, and should have died considering that napalm bombs burn at 1200˚C, enough to melt the skin off of someone’s body. The nearby soldiers, in an attempt to help her, poured water on the burns, but in reality, this mistake only made the napalm burn deeper in her skin, causing her to pass out. Three days later, Phuc’s parents found her in the hospital, where doctors had done everything they could for her. “I had been left to die. They had no more hope,” Kim Phuc remarked, “but then a miracle happened. A kind doctor got me transferred to a larger clinic in Saigon, where I got treatment and survived.”
Kim Phuc did not focus on her injuries, and instead tried to use her story as a teaching point for numerous lessons. “I don’t want to talk about the suffering. Let me just say the pain was unbelievable. I learned to be strong even when it hurts so badly. I was nine years old, and I knew nothing of pain.” As Phuc recovered, her injuries sometimes made it difficult to move on; even small things, like wearing a short sleeve blouse, were embarrassing because of the scars on her arm. However, she persevered, and decided her dream was to be a doctor, so she could help others the same way doctors saved her. Accepted to medical school at age 19, Phuc’s dream looked like it was coming to fruition, at least until the government began using her as a symbol of the war, picking her up from school to do interviews with the foreign press. Eventually, Phuc begged the government to allow her to leave so she could study in peace, and the prime minister agreed to send her to the University of Havana, where she met her future husband, another Vietnamese student.
In Cuba, Phuc changed her course of study, moving from medicine into languages like English and Spanish. After moving back to Vietnam, she married her husband in 1992, and the government allowed them to honeymoon to Moscow. On the way back from Moscow, their plane stopped in Newfoundland to refuel, and Phuc decided that a life of freedom was more important than their lives and possessions in Vietnam, so they defected to Canada, leaving everything behind. Phuc said: “I just had my purse. Everything else stayed on that airplane, and all my stuff went back to Cuba. We had nothing, but we had each other and we had freedom, so we had everything.”
In Canada, Phuc focused on forgiving those who had caused her so much agony, using a cup of black coffee as an example. Her heart, like black coffee, was “bitter, angry, and full of loss.” Phuc slowly poured the coffee out of the cup, describing how she let go of her hate a little bit every day, eventually achieving her goal of forgiveness. Phuc, raised in the Cao Dai faith like most Vietnamese, converted to Christianity as an adult, because she felt it was more fulfilling, and the Bible, along with much prayer, helped her move on from her hatred.
After escaping from Vietnam and realizing how lucky she was, Kim Phuc decided she wanted to help others in the same way she had been saved as a small girl. She founded the Kim Foundation International, which helps children affected by wars, much like she was all those years ago. Since its inception, the Kim Foundation has sent medicine to Tajikistan, built schools in Uganda, and constructed hospitals in Kenya, to name a few. Kim Phuc also serves as a UN Goodwill Ambassador. Overall, it was very interesting to hear Kim Phuc’s story, and the lessons she taught regarding forgiveness are applicable to many of our daily lives.