Thursday, January 6, 2011

Getting Napalmed As A Child In South Vietnam

Phan Thị Kim Phúc, 1972

Phan Thị Kim Phúc was nine years old in the summer of 1972. She lived in Trảng Bàng, a town in South Vietnam, which was invaded by the Communists in early June. Their troops dug in, waiting for the inevitable American and South Vietnamese retaliation, while Phúc and other civilians took refuge with some South Vietnamese soldiers in a nearby temple.
Two days later, a pair of South Vietnamese bombers appeared in the sky above the town. They circled and then dove, using eight napalm bombs to turn the ground below into a hellscape of liquid fire, mistakenly attacking their own troops and civilians as they fled from the temple. Phúc's clothes were burnt completely off her. Her back and one of her arms were turned into a mess of blisters and peeling skin. Third degree burns covered more than half of her body. She ran, along with her brothers and the rest of the survivors, down the road out of town, naked, screaming, burning.

That's when Nick Ut, a photographer with the Associated Press, snapped one of the most famous photographs ever taken. He was standing a few hundred meters down the road with a handful of foreign journalists. When Phúc got to them, they gave her water to drink and poured some over her wounds. She passed out. Ut gathered her and some of the other children into his car and rushed them to the nearest hospital, in Saigon. He was sure she was going to die. So were the doctors. It would take 14 months and 17 operations before she was finally well enough to head back to a home that had been destroyed.

Meanwhile, in the States, Ut's photograph had given even more momentum to the rapidly mounting anti-war movement. The image became a thorn in Nixon's side; privately he wondered if the whole thing had been staged just to erode his support. Finally in 1975, nearly three years after the bombing of Trảng Bàng, he reluctantly withdrew the last American troops from Vietnam.

Phúc grew up in what was, in the wake of the war, a thoroughly Communist country. She started studying medicine at university, but the government pulled her out of school so that she could use her time to give interviews, pose for photos and generally be used as a propaganda tool for the state. She hated it with a passion; thought about killing herself. It took years before she finally convinced them to let her continue her studies in Cuba, at Havana University.

It was there that she met another visiting Vietnamese student, Bui Huy Toan. They fell in love. Got married. And went to Moscow on their honeymoon. On their way back, when the plane touched down briefly in Gander, Newfoundland to refuel, they applied for asylum. And they got it. Soon, they were Canadian citizens, having moved to the suburbs of Toronto and settled down.

That's where they still live now—in Ajax. At first, Phúc led a private life here, not wanting to relive the memories of the bombing and the horrifying photo that made her famous. But when the Toronto Sun tracked her down and put her face on the front page, she decided to use it as an opportunity to re-enter the public eye and do some good. In the years since, she's given speeches and interviews, started a foundation helping to find medical treatment and psychological counseling for children affected by war, and worked for the UN as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.


I guess it's cheating a bit, since she doesn't actually live within the boundaries of the city proper, but this is the story that leaps to mind every time Rob Ford repeats his absurd idea that Toronto can't afford to take in any more immigrants. Phan Thị Kim Phúc told her story to NPR here. And talked to the BBC, along with one the filmmakers who helped save her life that day, here. Nick Ut also talked to them, which you can find here. There are more deeply disturbing photos of the napalming and her burns here and here. Here's what she looks like all grown up. And, finally, I'll post footage shot by a film crew who were standing there with Ut that day. As you might imagine, it's upsetting as all fuck:

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