Child of War Turned Peace Activist: Phan Thi Kim Phuc

Remember the photo of a little girl running naked down the street, covered in napalm? Amazingly, she survived the horrors of the Vietnam War -- and grew up to become a world-renowned activist for peace and forgiveness.

It’s one of the most iconic images of the 20th century: A young Vietnamese girl running from her village, naked, her clothes burned away in a napalm attack. Her mouth is wide, her face filled with terror and anguish.

This photo, Vietnam Napalm, by Nick Ut, was taken in 1972, just after American troops accidentally dropped a load of napalm from the sky, demolishing the Vietnamese town of Trang Bang. The stark, disturbing image was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for addressing the realities of the war in Vietnam, and served as a wake-up call to millions of Americans who had not realized the damage that was being done to innocent civilians like that scared, naked child, running down the street on fire.

For millions of people who saw that image, the young girl in the photo would forever remain nameless – no more than a symbolic innocent, ruined by the atrocities of war. Most people wouldn’t know whether she survived, or if she passed away moments after the click of the shutter. Her future, if she had one at all, was bound to be grim.

The reality of the situation may come as a surprise: The young, terrified girl in that photo, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, is now a 45-year old woman. She is a wife and a mother, and is now a Canadian citizen. Most surprising of all, though, is the fact that she has devoted her life to becoming an ambassador for peace, and has established a nonprofit organization called KIM Foundation International, which is dedicated to helping children who’ve been traumatized by war to heal, providing both medical and social services to support their recovery.

Despite all the pain she has faced, Kim has forgiven her attackers wholeheartedly. In a 1996 Veteran’s Day address to Vietnam War veterans, Kim said, “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.” Recently, she had the opportunity to meet that pilot face-to-face – and she has since forged a close bond with him.

Though Kim bears scars, both physical and emotional, she has moved past the hatred she once felt, and now believes that her horrific experiences were meant to teach her a powerful lesson.

“I knew that I had been saved that day because I had a higher purpose in life,” she recently told an audience in Deer Lake, Canada. “Having known suffering and agony, I now know the value of reaching out to help others.

“Having known war, I now know the value of peace. Having lived with pain, I know the value of love. Having lost everything, I now know the value of cherishing everything I have that’s important and having known hatred, I now know the value and the power of faith and forgiveness.”

“I learned that forgiveness is far more powerful than any weapon of war,” Kim said. “If the little girl in that picture can do it, then you can do it too.”

Originally published January 31st, 2008