50 years later, ‘Napalm girl’ says iconic photo made it difficult to ‘navigate private and emotional life’

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The iconic “Napalm Girl” picture featuring nine-year-old Kim Phuc Phan Thi fleeing an aerial attack during the Vietnam War made it difficult for her to “navigate private and emotional life”, she has said in a new essay.

“Growing up, I sometimes wished to disappear not only because of my injuries – the burns scarred a third of my body and caused intense chronic pain – but also because of the shame and embarrassment of my disfigurement,” Kim Phuc wrote in an essay titled “It’s been 50 years. I am not ‘Napalm Girl’ anymore”.

Taken outside the Trang Bang village on 8 June 1972, the Pulitzer prize-winning picture showed a nude Kim Phuc, who had pulled off her burning clothes and was running naked down the street.

Officially titled “The Terror of War”, the picture was clicked by photographer Nick Ut after a South Vietnamese Skyraider dropped four napalm bombs.

The picture quickly came to be known as the “Napalm Girl”, symbolising the horrors of the Vietnam War.

“I have only flashes of memories of that horrific day. I was playing with my cousins in the temple courtyard,” she wrote as she recounted the “explosion and smoke and excruciating pain” she was in.

“Napalm sticks to you, no matter how fast you run, causing horrific burns and pain that last a lifetime,” she added. “I don’t remember running and screaming, ‘Nong qua, nong qua!’ [‘Too hot, too hot!’] But film footage and others’ memories show that I did.”

After taking the picture, the photographer quickly set aside his camera and wrapped her in a blanket to rush her to a hospital. “Nick changed my life forever with that remarkable photograph. But he also saved my life,” she wrote. “Yet I also remember hating him at time.”

The iconic photo, officially titled ‘The Terror of War’, quickly came to be known as the ‘Napalm Girl’ (AP)
The iconic photo, officially titled ‘The Terror of War’, quickly came to be known as the ‘Napalm Girl’ (AP)

She recounted feeling the pity of her neighbours and parents and being embarrassed by the photo. But over a period of time, she shifted her attention to comforting victims of war and advocating for peace.

Recalling the horror of that day in an interview with earlier in May, Kim Phuc said that 50 years ago she was known to the world only as a victim of war.

“But right now, 50 years later, I am no longer a victim of war. I am a mother, a grandmother and a survivor calling out for peace.”

“That picture became a very powerful gift for me to have a chance to have opportunity to do something back to help people,” she said on Monday, ahead of the 50th anniversary. “Now we are facing the violence shooting in the school it’s another war. I dedicated the rest of my life to help children around the world who suffer.”

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