Vietnam Victim Finds Peace In Canada
Her face is round and smooth and she laughs often. She is a grown woman now, a wife and mother living in a modest apartment in the area of Toronto's east end known as "little" Chinatown. But to the world, she is still frozen in time, a terrified nine-year-old girl running down a South Vietnamese country road in June, 1972. The stunning photograph, taken after she was badly burned in an American-ordered napalm bombing, won a Pulitzer Prize for Associated Press photographer Nick Ut and helped galvanize opposition to the war. The picture became so well-known that the young victim, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, was widely interviewed in the mid-1980s by Western journalists visiting Vietnam.
For the past decade, however, she has mostly hidden herself from view, determined to build a life out of the public eye. Now a permanent resident in Canada after defecting from her temporary home in Cuba in 1992, the 33-year-old Kim has decided to talk once again about her experiences. "I hope my story can help people," she explains, speaking in a softly accented English during a recent interview with Maclean's. "It happen too much, the fighting."
There are many parts to Kim's journey: her long and agonizing recovery from the third-degree burns that covered her back, shoulder and one arm; her difficult relationship with the media exposure that both saved her life - journalists who witnessed the attack helped get her treatment - and later became a burden to her; her struggle to establish a normal life in the West. Most remarkable of all, however, is Kim's astonishing capacity to forgive.
Last fall, Kim participated in a Veterans Day ceremony at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. A documentary by Canadian independent film-maker Shelley Saywell, airing on the CBC series Witness on Feb. 11, captures an unanticipated and emotional meeting with Capt. John Plummer, the man who ordered South Vietnamese pilots to make the fateful air strike on her village. As the two sit side by side, smiling and holding hands, it is clear that she bears him nothing but goodwill. Kim says her Christian faith is what protects her from bitterness, but others say religion alone cannot explain her extraordinary personal strength. "She is very unusual that way," says Nancy Pocock, a member of the Quaker Committee for Refugees in Toronto, who has become like a mother to Kim. "It's very human to resent it if you've been so badly hurt."
There is much to resent. As Kim recalls the attack, the panic and destruction of the war seem eerily close. The bombs, intended for North Vietnamese positions near her village of Trang Bang, by accident hit fleeing villagers. "Right away, I know my clothes are burning, everything, and I saw my hand, my arm burning," she says. "I thought, 'Oh, my goodness, I become ugly girl, not normal like before.' " But then she started to run, desperate to escape the circle of fire, and there was, she says, "no more thinking." Just overwhelming fear, and later, a searing heat. She was barely aware of the photographers standing close by. But a video taken at the scene shows the terrible injuries to her back, where great swathes of skin were destroyed by the napalm, a thickener that turns gasoline into a jelly-like concoction that sticks to surfaces, including skin, as it burns. A three-year-old cousin and his nine-month-old brother were also badly burned and later died.
Kim, as she often says, was lucky. Nick Ut rushed her to a near-by hospital. She was later transferred to another in Saigon specializing in plastic surgery. "That is a terrible time for me," she says, remembering the excruciating daily sessions in a medicated bath, followed by the cutting away of damaged skin - while she drifted in and out of consciousness. Her sister fainted from shock at the sight.
Finally, 14 months and many operations later, Kim was released. But the war was still raging and Trang Bang was under constant threat. Her home was destroyed, although no other family members were wounded. In April, 1975, when the United States finally withdrew from Vietnam, the fighting was particularly intense, she recalls, with many casualties. "The world in Vietnam is not just that picture," she emphasizes. "It happen everywhere. A lot of people die and a lot of people suffering." They did not, she adds, have the good fortune to be in a famous picture. "Very important," she adds, "I am alive [to talk about the past]. If I die, that picture is just history."
The blessing has, however, been decidedly mixed. In the early 1980s, Western journalists began asking to speak with her. The North Vietnamese government, which took over the south in 1975, understood her power as an anti-American symbol, and she gave many interviews. At first, she was surprised and proud. "Wow, you are nothing, and now something new come into my life," she remembers thinking. But later, when she moved to Saigon to study medicine, the interruptions became too frequent, interfering with her studies. Finally, the government in Tainin, the region where Trang Bang is located, asked her to leave school and stay in her village to do the interviews close to the place where the photograph was taken. Disheartened, she decided in 1986 to continue her studies in Cuba, this time in pharmacology. There, already plagued by recurring knife-like pain from her injuries, she developed asthma and diabetes, which forced her to cut back on her classes. But she also met her future husband, fellow Vietnamese student Bui Huy Toan, in Cuba, where they married in 1992.
Meanwhile, she nursed her dreams of escaping to the West. Once, she tried unsuccessfully to enter the United States through Mexico. The opportunity to defect finally came when she and her husband flew to Moscow for their honeymoon. For their return flight to Cuba - with a brief stop in Gander - they were required to obtain a visa from the Canadian consulate in Moscow. "I thought, 'Oh, bingo!' " she says, laughing as she recalls grasping the coveted piece of paper in her hand. "I just have in my mind, I want to be free," she adds more soberly.
When they got off in Gander for a refuelling stop, Kim told Toan she was not going to get back on. With no friends, no money - not even their luggage, which they had to leave on the plane - Kim's first move was to telephone Ut, whom she calls Uncle Nick. But she was unable to reach him at his home in Los Angeles. Instead, she dialled a friend in New York City, who gave her Pocock's telephone number. "She so surprised, a Vietnamese who speak Spanish," Kim recalls of their first conversation. Pocock encouraged her to come to Toronto and the department of immigration paid for their three-day trip by bus, boat and train. Arriving at Toronto's Union Station in midwinter was hardly a relief. Despite elation over leaving Cuba, there was also fear. "It's really hard," she says. "We are in the jungle, we don't know anything."
Pocock helped, emotionally and in other ways. She referred Kim to an immigration lawyer and the pair were quickly granted refugee status. Almost immediately, the media calls started coming, but with a few exceptions, she refused. "I don't want to be famous," she remembers thinking. "I really don't want it - I so scared already." But the past few years of calm have allowed Kim to begin feeling more secure. Her family lived on welfare for a few years, until Toan found work as a nurse's assistant at minimum wage. Kim stays home with their two-year-old son, Thomas, who is clearly the centre of the couple's universe. Lively and outgoing - he kisses an unknown visitor, twice - Thomas responds cheerfully when his parents ask him to spell his name, recite the English alphabet and count up to 10, in three languages.
If many of their hopes now centre on their son, Kim and Toan have not abandoned dreams of their own. They expect to become Canadian citizens within a year. Much of their social life revolves around their Baptist congregation, but Kim admits she is sometimes lonely. She especially misses her parents, whom she has not seen since she left Vietnam in 1986. Her goal, when there is enough money, is to attend bible college. "I feel so safe here," she says. "Outside is cold, but the people are not cold - they warm."
Kim has now come to view talking about her story as a forceful way to explain the tragedy and waste of war. But with such constant reminders of the past, she is vigilant about the pitfalls of sadness and depression. As much as possible, she avoids reflecting on the war. "I never do sorrow like that," she says. To feel a trace of bitterness, even deep inside, she says, is too tiring, too heavy. "With me," she says smiling, "the inside is the same as the outside."
Maclean's February 10, 1997