Veterans of Vietnam weep as the girl who became a symbol of suffering comes to forgive 22 years later

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The Independent Online
In the photograph album of the 20th century, one picture more than almost any other will best evoke its most tragic futilities: a nine-year-old girl running naked from a napalm drop in the Vietnam War, arms outstretched in terror. Now, thankfully, we have one more image for the collection: it, by contrast, will stand for man's capacity for courage and forgiveness.

The subject in both is Phan Thi Kim Phuc. She was the child who, on a June day in 1972, was caught by the shutter of Nick Ut an Associated Press photographer. She was fleeing after a direct hit from a napalm bomb dropped by a South Vietnamese plane on the orders of an American commander. In the picture's left foreground is her brother. Two other brothers were already dead.

Ms Kim Phuc was also the woman with the open, kindly face, who on Veteran's Day last Monday stepped through the crowd assembled at the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC to lay a wreath. Now 33, a wife and a mother, the girl who became the symbol of America's folly had come to its very heart, not to stir its guilt but to help it learn from the horror.

"I have suffered a lot from both physical and emotional pain," she told the crowd of veterans at the Wall. "Sometimes I could not breathe, but God saved my life and gave me faith and hope. Even if I could talk face to face with the pilot who dropped the bombs I would tell him, `We cannot change history, but we should try to do good things for the present and for the future to promote peace.'" The veterans saw her and, to a soldier, they wept.

The story that ensured that Ms Kim Phuc survived to be more than just the girl in the picture began when Mr Ut himself, who won a Pulitzer for the shot, took her burning body to a military hospital. She was treated for 14 months for the third-degree burns that covered half her body, doctors rebuilding her with a series of skin grafts. Every time her skin was so much as touched she would pass out from pain.

In 1984 she was "discovered" by a Dutch documentary team and simultaneously by the Vietnam government which attempted to use her to gain international sympathy. In 1986 she was permitted to travel to Cuba to study. There she fell in love with a fellow Vietnamese student, Bui Huy Toan, whom she married. On a return flight to Cuba from Moscow, where they honeymooned, Ms Kim Phuc announced that they would get off at a stop-over at Gander, Newfoundland. The couple were granted asylum by Canada and today, with a two-year-old son, they live in a one-room flat in a suburb of Toronto.

The journey to Washington this week came about through an invitation from the Vietnam Veterans of America and the support of Shelley Saywell, a Canadian film-maker telling the story of her life.

While Ms Kim Phuc avoided reporters, she offered details of her life in an interview with the New York Times. "Behind that picture of me, thousands and thousands of people, they suffered - more than me," she said. "They died. They lost parts of their bodies. Their whole lives were destroyed, and nobody took that picture."

Ms Kim Phuc still suffers physically. In Cuba she developed diabetes and asthma and while her face is unblemished, beneath the clothes there is a scarred body. The skin, deprived of sweat or oil glands, cannot perspire. "When the weather changes, the pain comes, like I am cut, cut. I try to keep down my pain, thinking, thinking to control it. I ask my husband to tell me stories, funny stories or ask me something so I have to answer him. And that is the way I can live."

Twenty-two years after her image helped to end the Vietnam War, Ms Kim Phuc says she has plenty to be grateful for - a stable life in Canada, a loving husband and a child she thought she would never be able to produce. America has cause to be thankful too - for her grace and courage in coming to Washington to offer remarkable forgiveness.