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50 years later, ‘Napalm Girl’ has a message for children in Ukraine

Kim Phuc Phan Thi has had quite a week. She marked the 50-year anniversary of a Pultizer Prize-winning photo of herself as a nine-year-old girl, running naked in a Vietnam street after a napalm attack by the South Vietnamese on June 8, 1972. 

Media from around the world have called to talk to her and the photographer who took the image, Nick Ut, and the photo has circulated once more on social media.

The image, titled “The Terror of War” but better known as “Napalm Girl,” has persisted as a symbol not just of the Vietnam War but the horrors of war itself.

CBC producer Sylvia Thomson met with Kim Phuc Phan Thi in Ajax, Ont., where she now lives with her mom, husband and two kids. 

They sat down in a park to talk about why she thinks graphic photos of war are important and the message she has for children living through war in Ukraine.

“To be honest, they have the right to be angry and hateful. Me, too,” she said.

“The only thing I can share with the children is just to not give up.” 

50 years later napalm girl has a message for children in ukraine
South Vietnamese forces follow terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, centre, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places on June 8, 1972. A South Vietnamese plane accidentally dropped its flaming napalm on South Vietnamese troops and civilians, and the terrified girl had ripped off her burning clothes while fleeing. (Nick Ut/The Associated Press)

The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

It’s been 50 years since that photo came out. What did you think the first time you saw it

The first time I saw my picture, after 14 months being in hospital, oh my goodness. The first time I saw it, I said, ‘What!’ and ‘Why did he take my picture like that?’ I felt so ugly and ashamed because I was naked. I was a child. I was really detesting it. I hated that picture … and I feel like, ‘Does anyone understand my pain?’

What are we seeing in that photo?

As soon as the napalm touched me, the clothes burned off. I still remember my arm and seeing all the fire. I was so terrified, and I was so scared. And I thanked God my feet weren’t burned, and I was able to run out of that fire…. We just kept running and running and running for a while … and I cried out ‘Too hot! Too hot!’ The soldiers tried to help me. They tried to pour the water over me, and at that moment, I lost consciousness. 

What is your relationship with the photographer, Nick Ut? 

After he took the picture, he saw me burning so badly … he put down the camera and took me to the nearest hospital, and I thought he saved my life. I owe him. He’s my hero. Not only did he do his job as a photographer but also, he did extra as a human being. He helped. Now, I feel like he’s a part of my family. That’s why I call him Uncle Ut. 

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Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, left, is pictured with Kim Phuc Phan Thi ahead of a tribute dinner in Toronto on June 8, 2012. Phan Thi calls him ‘Uncle Ut,’ and credits the photographer’s actions with saving her life. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

How did your thinking about the photo evolve? 

Yeah, I hated the photo when I first saw it because I was a little girl and I was naked and ugly, and I was so embarrassed. Ten years later, my story became hot news. The [communist] Vietnamese government rediscovered me. And all the journalists from other countries came to visit me, and I became a voice for propaganda … I [didn’t] belong to me anymore. 

They thought I should be  a war symbol for the state. At the beginning, I was happy because I was getting attention … but gradually, it interfered with my school schedule. The government took me out of school and asked me to work with them. They did not want to listen to me. At that time, I hated that picture. I did not want to be that little girl in the famous picture. I just thought the more that picture got famous, the more it would cost my private life.

In that time, there was so much hatred in me, bitterness. Sometimes, I thought of suicide because I thought, ‘After I die, I will not have to suffer.’ And remember, I still had a lot of physical pain.     

50 years later napalm girl has a message for children in ukraine 2
In this 2015 photo, Kim Phuc shows the burn scars on her back and arms after laser treatments in Miami. (Nick Ut/The Associated Press)

You ended up spending 14 months in hospital because of your injuries?

Yes, including treatment and rehabilitation. I was really deformed. I could not feel at all, and a machine had to help wake up my nerves. Now, you see me looking normal. 

Why did you do all these interviews with journalists all over the world this week on the 50th anniversary of the photo being taken? 

Yes, because I want everybody to celebrate my life, 50 years later. I am not a victim of war anymore. I am a survivor. I feel like 50 years ago, I was a victim of war but 50 years later, I was a friend, a helper, a mother, a grandmother and a survivor calling out for peace. 

And I work to fulfil my dream to give back to children who are victims of war. I am so thankful that all social media all over the world is just talking about my picture. I think that is so powerful. We have to have the truth. The story has to be told. To show people what happened. 

50 years later napalm girl has a message for children in ukraine 3
In this 2012 file photo, Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong (Nick) Ut visits Phan Thi’s house near the place where he made his famous Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of her as a nine-year old. (Na Son Nguyen/The Associated Press)

So, it’s OK to show graphic war photos? 

I believe that we need it. Sometimes, it is not pretty, but we need to show that. That kind of education, that kind of reminder is needed to let people know that we need to stop it. 

Was Feb. 24 — the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine — a big day for you, seeing a war beginning again? 

Yes, it was for me and for my mom. We were just crying because we understand. We understand perfectly how hurt, how lost, how desperate, everything that people have to face right now because we have been there in the same situation. Terrifying, horror. 

50 years later napalm girl has a message for children in ukraine 4
Sick children and women with their newborn babies stay in a basement used as a bomb shelter at the Okhmadet children’s hospital in central Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 1. (Emilio Morenatti/The Associated Press)

How have the images of kids in Ukraine affected you? 

My heart is broken. My heart is broken for all people who lost their lives, especially children. I will never forget Feb. 24, 2022. My mom and I, we cry out every moment thinking what happened to me and my family 50 years ago. 

Not necessary. Why is it repeating? I have been there. My house was completely destroyed. All that we had, gone … Then, we became officially poor, poor, poor. We had no money and no rice. And then for me, I had to deal with all the scars and the ugliness and the pain. Not just the deformity but the pain. Also nightmares, traumatized, fearful. 

Do you have a sense of how children react in a war. Or what it is like for them?

To be honest, they have the right to be angry and hateful. Me, too. I was in that situation … I was in a deep, deep, deep darkness. The only thing I can share with the children is just to not give up. As a child, I just cried. I just could not bear the pain, and I passed out. 

50 years later napalm girl has a message for children in ukraine 5
In May, Kim Phuc Phan Thi and Ut visited Rome and showed Pope Francis the 1972 photo ‘The Terror of War,’ also known as the ‘Napalm Girl,’ during the weekly general audience at the Vatican. (Vatican media handout)

What would you tell the children?

Hang on there. Don’t lose your hope. Don’t lose your dream. There are so many people around who will help you. And whatever they say, children can say from the heart, but they need help. 

Would you want to go to Ukraine to speak to people there? 

Yes, I am about to go. 

Kim Phuc Phan Thi is in preliminary discussions about flying to Poland to help Ukrainian refugee children there. She also plans to speak with teachers and students in Ukraine in July over Zoom. 

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