What have we learned from war?
Without faith, we are hopeless. Without hope, we are lost. For a time I felt lost, and betrayed by the government that won the Vietnam War. My conversion to Christianity filled me with the grace and courage I needed to survive my scars, and the scars of my people. This would be my destiny.
As a little child, I had no cares. My family lived in a large house, we had land, and we were rich, as far as village life went. I remember the tall trees, and climbing them to reach big, juicy guavas. I remember when it rained and how good it felt. We children had to make our own fun, and would run and play, sliding in the water after a rainfall. Everything seemed perfect.
As a little child, I didn’t know what was going on in the larger world, but I did know my parents were always scared. Sometimes my father would go to the town to sleep overnight. I’d ask my mother “Where is father?” and she would tell us, but never give us the reason why he left. It is only later we found out he had to leave, or else he might be taken away by the Viet Cong. There were two doors in our house, and when people came, they would knock differently. The front door was a friendly knock, but the back door knock would be the Viet Cong. My mother owned a restaurant in the village, and at night she would walk down the road, holding a torch to light her way, and pass severed heads on the road. If you didn’t do what the Viet Cong said, you were in trouble. My parents did their best to protect us.
The day the bombs dropped, everything changed. In an instant, my happy life was gone. The napalm seared me, and I was not expected to survive. I stayed in the hospital in Saigon for 14 months, and I had 17 operations. The doctors and nurses cared for me compassionately, and they inspired me. I thought, when I got home, I would like to study, to be a doctor. They helped me live.
The Communists had other plans, and used me as a propaganda tool. My studies were cut short by the local government and the officials offered me a job of manual work. I knew that I would have to work with my mind, and work lightly, rather than do hard physical work, because I was not able. When they took away my studies, they took away my dreams, and I felt like they took away my life.
I felt isolated. I was 18 years old and I had no one to talk to. I began to hate my life and to hate “normal” people. I felt ugly and disfigured and thought that no one would ever want me. In 1982 I wanted to give up. The government controlled us, and I didn’t want to be controlled any longer, I didn’t want my mind to be controlled. I remember being on a street corner in Saigon contemplating suicide, by jumping into traffic.
At this time, on my break from work, I would go to the library and read. I only had an hour, and I pored over religious books, seeking, always seeking. The religion I grew up with, Cao Dai, didn’t make sense to me anymore. Then I came across the Bible, and started to read the New Testament. Very slowly, I became open to love. I think of John 14:6. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” That became my way, and I converted to Christianity.
When President Nixon doubted the authenticity of the photograph taken by Nick Ut, it surprised me. The Associated Press ran the photo; how could it not be true? My surprise turned to sadness for the President. He probably couldn’t imagine the horror of little children being bombed, and didn’t think it was possible for humans to do this to one another.
In 1986, the government allowed me to study in Cuba, and that is where I met my future husband. My mother didn’t want me to get involved with men, telling me I had suffered enough in my life and that I should live in the temple! I didn’t think anyone would want me, the way I looked. My husband loved me for my soul—that is real love. We were permitted to go to Moscow after we got married. Our flight had a stop-over in Newfoundland, and I didn’t tell him at the time, but my plan was to ask for refugee status in Canada. He agreed, and we were granted asylum by the government. We have lived in Canada and in Ontario ever since.
My mother and father live with us. We feel like we were adopted as family when we moved here. In Ontario, everyone has access to health care, education and social services. My mother says, “Canada is heaven”. And I say, “Almost.”
For me, war is never necessary. It causes destruction and horror and pain. Little children become victims. We must build communities of love and tolerance. I do wear a poppy on Remembrance Day and I do participate in Remembrance Day ceremonies, because we should never forget the sacrifices made for us. But we should resolve our differences peacefully. It is possible. It starts with healing the heart. Trust in God—it is the best medicine because it is real.
My life is now dedicated to healing children of war. I recently visited burned victims in Uganda. I shared my story and we prayed together. That is true power. If the “girl in the picture” can learn to forgive, anyone can.
Kim Phuc Phan Thi, OOnt was a child during the Vietnam War. She was severely burned in a napalm bombing attack on the village where she lived with her family. Her pain and terror were captured in a photograph taken June 8, 1972 by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut. The photograph went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, and became a defining image of the 20th century. In 1997, she founded Kim Foundation International, which supports international organizations providing free medical assistance to children who are victims of war and terrorism. She lives in the Toronto area with her husband and two sons.