The Vietnam War was one of, if not the most politicized human conflicts in history.
One of the turning points of a war was when Associated Press photographer Nick Ut captured a shot of a young Vietnamese girl running away naked from her home being shelled by South Vietnamese napalm bombs on June 8, 1972.
Kim Phuc Phan Thi, the girl in the photo, was nine-years-old at the time when the photo — that received worldwide attention — was taken. The napalm seared through her clothing and she was left for dead at a hospital morgue.
Kim would survive the physical trauma of the burns and would eventually emigrate from Saigon to Canada — but the emotional trauma of that day lived inside of her for years.
“When I was nine years old, I lost my whole childhood and for the rest of my life I suffered a lot of pain, trauma, nightmares and self-esteem issues,” she said.
The trauma of her childhood would continue into her adult life and Kim often considered suicide as an alternative to the daily suffering she went through.
“It was so hard for me to carry on that burden,” she said. “I had pain both inside and outside and I questioned, ‘Why me? Why do I have to suffer so much? I didn’t do anything wrong.?’
“I had no hope at that time. I was looking for peace.”
Through her teens, Kim held out hope that she could study to become a doctor, to honour all the nurses and doctors who helped her recover from her physical pain, but the communist Vietnamese government cut short her studies to use her as political propaganda — another debilitating loss.
“I couldn’t go to school in 1982 so I started to go to the big library in Saigon and I got into the religion section,” she said. “I brought out many books.
“Out of all the books I brought out to read — I read the New Testament.”
Although Kim still honours the Gods of her family — this moment in life was pivotal for her working through the trauma and hatred she felt — and eventually led to her conversion to Christianity.
“I was living in Saigon with my sister’s family and at that time it felt like I couldn’t carry on the burden,” she said.
“I went into the backyard in the afternoon, I looked up into the sky and said with all my heart, ‘God are you real? Do you exist? Please help me. I need help’.”
Eventually, Kim said her prayers were answered when a cousin of her brother-in-law — a Christian — came over to their house. The meeting led to Kim going to Church with him and eventually being able to find the friends she needed to help work through her trauma.
“I heard that message, it touched my heart and it seemed like the pastor was talking to me personally,” she said. “Because of everything in my past, I needed peace.
“I needed someone to take my burden, my loss, my pain, my negativity and that is why I opened my heart. I believe in Jesus Christ.”
Kim’s conversion, she says, allowed her to have a relationship with God that helped her get through her pain — and even forgive the people who started her trauma.
“Even now, I don’t know the name of the pilot who dropped the bomb, but I put the pilot in my prayers everyday,” she said. “I have never have met him. I don’t know if he is alive or died in the war but I pray for him.
“All the enemies who caused me suffering are in my prayer list.”
Learning how not to hate was a gift for Kim.
“I used to curse them to death,” she said. “I used to wish they would suffer more than me but I don’t do that anymore. I changed my thoughts and I pray for them. Eventually I realized I love them enough to pray for them.
“Eventually I realized that I have no bitterness and hatred in my heart.”
Since coming to Canada, Kim wasn’t able to achieve her dream of being a doctor but she is able to help people through the KIM Foundation, which helps promote peace around the world and heal children of war.
“That little girl is ready to give back,” she said. “I really want to help the children who have been victims of war and the children who are underprivileged around the world.
“That picture controlled me for many years but eventually I learned how to control that picture when I gained freedom in Canada.”
After years of trauma, Kim is now thankful she is alive in Canada with freedom and can help people. She has since wrote a book Fire Road: The Napalm Girl’s Journey through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness and Peace.
“I have that moment in history that recorded what happened to me,” she said. “I am still alive and I am so thankful to have the opportunity to contribute and dedicate my life to let people know the value of peace.”
Kim still will sometimes feel the effects of her trauma, including vivid nightmares, but she used a personal system that has allowed her to work through it called The Three D’s, which includes desire, discipline and determination.
Still, trauma is something that can flood back into her life without notice.
“I got onto a bus in Canada and I saw someone wearing an army uniform,” she said. “I was so fearful and then I turned opposite from him and said to myself, ‘Kim. It is not true Kim. You are in Toronto. Not at war’. I repeated that until I came down and the fear left. That is how I work through my trauma.”
Kim will be in Lacombe on Tuesday, March 12th at the Lacombe Memorial Centre at 7:30 p.m., where she will share her message of peace.
“Now I have an opportunity to be alive and through the KIM Foundation I can do that. I don’t run anymore — I fly,” she said.
“When kids talk to me about their pain and hatred — I have been there. I can use the example of my life to give them hope.”