Saturday 21 April 2012

The Girl in the Picture

"Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America--not on the battlefields of Vietnam." (Marshall McLuhan, 1975)

I heard Kim Phuc speak at Redeemer College tonight.  She is the girl in the famous picture from the Vietnam War, showing her running out of her village, the clothes burned right off of her back, screaming in pain from the napalm burning her skin from the American bombs that were dropped.  Running beside her are her brothers and cousins, her aunt bringing up the rear with a baby in her arms, also burned badly from the napalm bombs.  The photographer who snapped the photo on that tragic day, Mr. Nut, would win the Pulitzer Prize for his work.  Kim Phuc would survive and attempt to go on to live a "normal" life, but she would forever be known as "the girl in the picture".

It was June 8, 1972 in a small village in South Vietnam.  An American military officer had been given the word that all civilians had been evacuated from the village and he gave the order to strike.  Four napalm bombs dropped on to the innocent victims that day.  One by one they came running through the black smoke to escape the inferno.  Most of them were children and most of them had clothes on their back, except for Kim Phuc and her baby cousin.  Sadly, the baby would die shortly after of his wounds. 

The photographer dropped his camera, scooped up Kim and rushed her to the local hospital where they attempted to treat her, but gave up after three days and were about to send her to the morgue.  However, someone intervened and believing that she could still be helped, sent her to the hospital in Saigon.  It was there that they performed surgery and saved Kim's life.  Over the course of 14 months, Kim underwent 13 surgeries.  Day after day, they would immerse her in a bath, and day after day she would cringe from the pain.  Slowly, the dead skin came off and new skin grew in its place.  Kim's Mom refused to let her give up, always encouraging her to do her exercises and take part in her therapy.  With her left arm badly burned, it was curled up originally, but Kim was able to regain use of her arm muscles. 

In 1982, Kim travelled to East Germany to have her final surgery, enabling her to move her neck again.  Although she would still endure pain, Kim had come a lot way physically.  However, spiritually she still had a long way to go.  Like a cup of black coffee, she was filled with bitterness towards the person who had done this to her, asking herself "why me?" 

In the meantime, she got the opportunity to live in Cuba and study medicine at the University of Havana.  It was there that she discovered the Bible, hiding a New Testament in her room and reading it at every opportunity.  She read it voraciously, soaking up Scripture verses like Luke 6:27-28:  "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you."  She accepted Jesus Christ as her Saviour and for the first time, she had room in her heart for forgiveness.  Slowly, she started to forgive the man who had ordered the bombs dropped on her village that day. 

It was also in Cuba that she met her future husband.  They married on September 11, 1992.  As Cuba was Communist, they were only allowed to honeymoon in other Communist countries so they applied to travel to Moscow.  Kim got a kick out of the fact that they only approved her husband to go on the honeymoon, but with some persuasion, she was allowed to accompany him.  On the way home from Moscow, they had a scheduled stop in Gander, Newfoundland to refuel.  The newlywed couple left the plane and never got back on, seeking asylum in Canada. 

Kim Phuc and her new husband settled in Toronto.  Kim had a baby boy named Thomas.  Three years later, she was invited to the Vietnam War Memorial ceremony in Washington D.C.  There she spoke about her war experience and how through her faith in God, she had been able to forgive her American oppressors. 

Many in the crowd were moved by her message, including a veteran who was there on that fateful day:  the man who ordered the napalm bomb attack on her village.  He requested that he speak to her after the ceremony and the meeting was arranged.  Kim looked into his eyes and told him that she forgave him.  In that moment, the veteran felt like "the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders".  A recovering alcoholic who had struggled through more than one failed marriage, these were the words that he needed to hear.  Kim and the veteran became dear friends:  they had come full circle. 

N.B.  Kim Phuc wrote her life story called The Girl in the Picture in 2000.

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