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by Lina Sankari

Vietnam:. The Little Napalm Girl Now Has Hope...

Translated Tuesday 9 October 2018, by Henry Crapo, Hervé Fuyet

Published in l’Humanité Friday, October 5, 2018

In an article, Kim Phuc, immortalized by Nick Ut’s famous cliché, discusses the treatments received forty-three years after the napalm bombardment of her village.

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In the foreground, the mouth of a brother, deformed by fear. With this scream, almost as in the painting by Edvard Munch, says the unbearable. Tam, that’s his name, begs adults to help her sister, seen with arms spread in the background. Kim Phuc, "the little girl burned with napalm", went down in history at the age of just 9. She was the one who turned the world upside down during the Vietnam War. She runs, naked, horribly burned, the skin of her back skin in tatters, on a road in the village of Trang Bang, near Saigon, fleeing the thick black smoke that escapes in the background. Behind them, American soldiers are marching at a slow pace. War, as it is. It is June 8, 1972. South Vietnamese planes spray napalm on a Buddhist pagoda they mistakenly believe has been infiltrated by Vietnamese fighters. Four bombs were dropped from their deadly craft.

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Guerre du Vietnam: une photo immortalise Kim Phuc, alors qu’elle vient d’être brûlée par du napalm - Vidéo - Play RTS

Nick Ut, whose brother, a photographer for the Associated Press, had just died, so Nick was in turn hired. At 21, he saw Kim Phuc’s grandmother come out of the flames with a baby in her arms before seeing the bruised children. "Nong qua, nong qua," Kim Phuc shouts (it’s too hot, too hot). "I was holding my camera but could hardly believe it. I took a picture, trembling, driven by fear and anger. Was she going to die? I carried her in my arms and took her to the hospital," recalls Nick Ut, during the commemorations of the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Saigon in 2015. His photograph was awarded the World Press Photo Prize in 1972 and the Pulitzer Prize for current affairs photography in 1974. Some even consider it to have been one of the turning points of the war.

Kim Phuc in the company of photographer Nick Ut, in 2012. Today, at the age of 55, she is president of an international foundation that provides care to chidren. Photo: Domian Dovarganes/AP

On that day, ITN journalist Christopher Wain gave the girl a drink and watered her to calm the burns. Nick Ut then covered her with a poncho to hide her nakedness. The road to Cu Chi Hospital was difficult. The car was taking the bumps. Kim Phuc, too, who cried out in pain. She sank into a semi-coma before being entrusted to the nursing staff. Her parents went from institution to institution to try to find her. She was finally located by Christopher Wain, who, haunted by her image, was also searching for her. He discovers her on a bed. The room, where other children lay between life and death, had a putrid smell. The nurse assured him that she will die. "It’s only a matter of hours," she said.

After fourteen months in hospital, she finally got out.

The journalist then fought to have her transferred to the American Barsky clinic, which specializes in severe burns. The United States agreed, but not the South Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which considered that the case could damage the country’s image. Christopher Wain then handed a knife to the cynical bureaucrat to put the girl out of her misery. Kim Phuc was finally transferred. After fourteen months in hospital, she finally got out but could barely move. Another photographer, Perry Kretz, was making considerable efforts to have a German plastic surgeon treat her retracted skin.

For the first time, she regains sense of touch

Kim Phuc is writing an article this month in the journal Jama Dermatology with two specialists. They review the laser treatments provided since 2015 to relieve third- and fourth-degree burns and chronic pain, which "it still estimates at ten out of ten", according to dermatologists Jill Waibel and Leonard Hoenig. That is to say an "intolerable" intensity. During seven sessions, they work to soften scars and regenerate nerves. "The laser heats the skin, until it "boils" to spray the scars," explained Dr. Waibel in 2015, who offers the treatments (1,500 euros, per session) to Kim Phuc. For the first time, she regained sensation and ease in her movements. Her pain is subsiding. They now rate them at 3, a feeling described as "intense". In their article, the doctors explain how they use the results of Kim Phuc’s care to engage with other "child victims of war and terrorism".

Kim Phuc has been carrying this trauma all her life. An existence also haunted by this photo. Everywhere she goes, she sees these pitiful looks on her face. She exists for others only as a survivor of horror. After a long work on herself, she seized this weight to give meaning to Nick Ut’s image and become an "ambassador for peace". In Canada, where she lives with her husband and two children, she also chairs an international foundation to care for minors caught in conflict.

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