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Through fire to forgiveness

Kim Phuc Phan Thi (Eric Lalmand/AFP/Getty Images)

Faith & Inspiration

Through fire to forgiveness

The ‘Napalm Girl’ of Vietnam says a bomb pointed her to Christ

With the snap of a camera, a photojournalist immortalized the most agonizing moment of Kim Phuc Phan Thi’s life: The 9-year-old girl was running from air raids on the Vietnamese village of Trang Bang, naked, arms spread, screaming in pain from the napalm burning her neck, back, and arms.

The photo, which won a Pulitzer Prize, encapsulated the horrors of the Vietnam War and the high price paid by children caught in the crossfire. For Phan, now 55, it was a decisive turning point in her life, taking her down a winding road that eventually led to spiritual restoration. She documents this journey in her recent memoir Fire Road: The Napalm Girl’s Journey Through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness & Peace. The bombs that nearly killed her, Phan now says, ultimately led her to hope and joy in Jesus Christ.

Nick Ut/AP

The 1972 photo showing Phan (center) after the napalm attack. (Nick Ut/AP)

After a 14-month hospital stay and 16 surgeries to deal with her severe burns, Phan left the hospital and faced a new reality: a war-torn home and constant physical pain. She tried finding solace in the Cao Dai religion, whose adherents worship the gods of every religion, and she was determined to one day become a doctor to help others. But after the war ended, Vietnamese officials decided to use “the girl in the picture” as a propaganda tool to demonize Americans and prop up the new Communist government. With handlers constantly pulling Phan out of her college classes for staged press conferences, the school finally kicked out Phan due to low attendance.

Phan was angry. The government had taken away her one dream in life, and no matter how much she prayed, the gods didn’t seem to hear her. She contemplated jumping out in front of traffic. “Why was I was still suffering?” Phan recalled wondering. “I didn’t have any peace or joy, I still struggled. My heart was so empty.” She concluded there must be no god.

She became curious about Christianity after picking up a Bible at her local library and reading about the God who was willing to die for His people. Later her brother-in-law’s cousin, an associate pastor, came to visit, and Phan peppered him with questions about the faith. He patiently answered her questions and pointed her to church, where she professed Christ.

Nick Ut/AP

Phan and her husband, Bui Huy Toan, at Faithway Baptist Church in Ajax, Ontario, in 1992. (Nick Ut/AP)

“It was an amazing turning point in my life,” Phan said. “I had peace, joy, and security. … I didn’t want to die like before.” Six months later the government shut down her church and arrested her pastor, but Phan continued to read from a small Bible she kept with her at all times. She prayed for a day when she could leave Vietnam.

After befriending the prime minister of Vietnam, Phan was permitted to continue her education at a college in Cuba. There she met her husband, Bui Huy Toan. While traveling back from their honeymoon in Russia, Phan and Bui slipped out of an airport during a transfer in Canada. “The moment I stepped out to stay in Canada, my faith was just like what Jesus said in Matthew 17:20—if you have the faith of a mustard seed, you can move mountains,” Phan said. “I knew I couldn’t stand it any longer in Cuba, I had to have freedom.” As refugees in a new land, the newlyweds had no money or work, but were glad to have escaped Communism. Through the help of local Christians, they settled in Toronto. (The couple have two sons and still live there today, 26 years later.)

Damian Dovarganes/AP

Phan with her husband and two sons in 2012. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Although pain from the burns persisted and anger over past injustices boiled inside her, Phan slowly learned to give everything over to God. She gradually forgave the people who had made her life miserable: the soldiers who dropped the napalm bomb, the friends who shunned her, the government handlers, and so on. As she prayed for each person, her heart began to change.

The changes in Phan’s life touched those closest to her. Her husband Bui, who was not a Christian when they married, professed faith in Christ shortly after arriving in Toronto in 1992 and later returned to Vietnam to tell his family and friends about the gospel.

Phan’s parents originally disowned her when she announced her conversion from Cao Dai to Christianity. More than a decade later, Phan helped them escape Vietnam and settle with her in Canada. Soon, both of Phan’s parents professed Christ, and so eventually did all seven of her siblings. When she returns to visit Trang Bang, Phan now sees churches where once there were none.

Nick Ut/AP

Phan shows the burn scars on her back. (Nick Ut/AP)

She started the Kim Foundation International, which helps children who have been injured or disabled in wars. As a UNESCO goodwill ambassador, Phan speaks to people all over the world, and shares not just a positive message, but the source of her hope—Jesus Christ. In her book, she recounts how attendees at her talks often come up to tell her they had prayed for the little girl in the photo years ago. “Those bombs led me to Christ,” Phan wrote.

Today, Phan laughs and cries tears of joy when contemplating God’s plan for her even as a little girl. “I look back at that picture, how ugly it was: I was naked, I was in agony, I was so hopeless, crying out. Why would that happen to a child?” Then she responds in praise: “Wow, Lord, You allowed that to happen to me. In the middle of that, You were there and You saved me. … It changed my life completely, turning darkness into light, from hatred to forgiveness, from sorrow to joy, from hopelessness to hope.”


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  • momof 13
    Posted: Wed, 04/18/2018 04:03 pm

    When I was a little girl, probably not much older than Phan,  I remember sitting and staring at this picture with extreme sadness in my heart. My tears flowed as I thought of the pain & terror she must be feeling. My hearts burst with joy to know God gave her beauty from ashes! Only our God could redeem such suffering! 

  • Leeper
    Posted: Fri, 04/20/2018 07:25 am

    This story is one of the many reasons that I like world news best. With all the suffering and corruption in our world you see the joy of salvation in Jesus Christ alone. 

  • Slats
    Posted: Thu, 04/26/2018 04:38 pm

    For Reader Nick who was incomfortable with the original hideous photo, the answer is in part given by Reader “Momof13,” who expressed so well the horror we all experienced at the time. The horrors of war continued in South Viet Nam long after it ended for the US. These images should compel all of us to hope and pray wars end and dont get started.  No one hates war more than those who were in it. 

  • Nick Hathaway
    Posted: Wed, 04/25/2018 11:26 am

    ...but could we have just the story of someone coming to Christ without the nude pictures. I wasn't aware of this picture because it was before my time and so I was not expecting what I got on World's site. Could we have some sort of warning? Could we consider running the story with the photo edited? We can use words to describe the travesties of the effects of napalm without crossing some lines that the Lord has put in place for our good.

  • ForWordThinker
    Posted: Fri, 04/27/2018 11:56 pm

    Has anyone tracked down the unknown victims that shared that horrific actual landscape with Ms. Phan (boy in foreground, kids in background)? Certainly her image is seared into our minds (those who've seen the iconic photo) and what a further miracle it would be if those accompanying kids eventually came to accept Messiah.