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In Napa, “napalm girl” Kim Phuc shares story of suffering and forgiveness in Vietnam and beyond

For the Vietnamese child who became known as “the napalm girl,” the searing burns, the years of surgery and the heavy scarring were only the beginning of her torment.

Long after her skin had slowly healed from a 1972 air attack that was captured in a world-famous photograph crystallizing the horrors of the Vietnam War, Kim Phuc Phan Thi found the aftermath scorching her soul as surely as napalm had once burned her body.

“I became a victim all over again; my life became as a bird in a cage,” Kim Phuc, now 55, recalled Sunday at Napa’s Hopewell Baptist Church. “I asked, why me? Why do I suffer so much? I felt so bitter and angry, I wanted those who had caused me suffering to suffer even more than me.”

From her despair began a journey that led her first to a religious faith she said finally allowed her to forgive those who had nearly ended her life – and then, two decades after the napalm attack, to freedom in the west and a career advocating for children victimized by warfare.

The story of her winding road to inner peace highlighted Hopewell Baptist’s annual Ladies Conference, where Kim Phuc, who has lived in Canada since 1992, was the keynote speaker for the four-day program.

“Try not to see her as she was then – suffering, crying out in pain and fear,” she asked, with the image of her 9-year-old self on a projection screen behind the pulpit. “Try to see her as she is today: as a mother, a grandmother and a survivor, calling out for peace.”

“I was a happy child, just 9 years old, and I knew nothing about war,” she recalled of her early life in the village of Trang Bang in what was then South Vietnam. “My most serious injury was hurting my knee when I fell off my bicycle.”

But the war would come to Trang Bang – and Kim Phuc – on June 8, 1972.

According to media reports, villagers had been sheltering in a local pagoda when soldiers yelled for them to flee outside. A South Vietnamese bomber plane, targeting trade routes used by rebel Viet Cong forces, mistakenly released its napalm bombs over the villagers, triggering a curtain of fire that rippled across a highway.

“My clothes burned off and my skin was on fire,” Kim Phuc said unflinchingly on Sunday. Through the lens of Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, the girl’s scorched body and her screams of “Nong qua, nong qua!” (Too hot, too hot!) were captured for millions to see.

The attack mortally injured Kim Phuc’s 3-year-old cousin, and Kim Phuc herself was taken to a Saigon hospital with little chance to survive. Fourteen months would pass before the girl was released from the hospital, and a succession of operations would continue through 1984, requiring painful daily exercises to restore her movement.

Recovery, however, would be followed by years of control by Vietnam’s victorious communist regime, which pulled her out of medical school and arranged interviews with the foreign media as a propaganda tool.

With seemingly no place to turn, Kim Phuc said, she turned to Christianity in 1982 at age 19 after finding a copy of the New Testament in a local library, and persisted in her new faith following her move to Cuba in 1986 to continue her studies. Along the way – trying to follow the Biblical command to love one’s enemies – she wrote down the names of those who had caused her suffering and pain: the plane’s pilots, her communist minders and so on.

“The more I prayed for my enemies,” she said Sunday, “the softer my heart became. When I felt real forgiveness, my heart was set free. If I can do it, all of you can do it too.”

At the University of Havana, she met a fellow Vietnamese student, Bui Huy Toan, whom she married in 1992 – shortly before the newlyweds defected to Canada during a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland on the return flight from a Moscow honeymoon. The couple, who have two adult sons, now live in the Toronto area.

A naturalized Canadian citizen, Kim Phuc serves as a UNESCO goodwill ambassador for peace and also leads the Kim Foundation International, a nonprofit that aids medical assistance programs for children who are victims of war and terrorism.

“I came through the fire, and I am so blessed to be with you today,” she said toward the end of a speech occasionally marked by sniffles from an often-rapt audience of well over 100. “My dream is that one day, all people will live without fear, in real peace, with no fighting and no hostility.”

As congregation members queued after the speech to meet with Kim Phuc, and get her autograph on their Bibles and copies of her memoir “Fire Road,” some marveled at the depth of her forgiving spirit in the face of nearly unbearable suffering.

“It’s powerful for her to show how much she’s been able to forgive – even the people who she didn’t know who caused her suffering,” said Balkis Johnson, a Napa resident who has attended Hopewell Baptist for three years.

“With this picture and how polarizing it is, you think, what picture do you want to represent?” she said. “The biggest thing for me is, how can my picture be of love and forgiveness for everyone?”

The conclusion of Kim Phuc’s testimony was calculated to show her as much more than the anonymous “girl in the picture.” In the Hopewell sanctuary, the black-and-white image of a grievously injured girl gave way to color pictures of the mother and grandmother of today.

“Yes, that girl is alive,” she said. “And not just as a piece of history, but as a living miracle.”

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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