Dresden Peace Prize honors ‘napalm girl’ from iconic photo

It was an image seen around the world: People running to flee a sea of flames, a village reduced to rubble and ash. At the center of the image, a naked girl, her clothes burned off, screaming in agony.

Photographer Nick Ut, who captured the image that would become an icon of the Vietnam War, brought the injured children in the photo to a hospital in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. The girl, Kim Phuc, survived but with serious burns that required multiple operations. She was later sought out and used as state propaganda by the the Communist regime in Vietnam. In 1992, on a flight from Cuba to Russia, Kim Phuc and her husband exited the plane while stopping over in Canada and requested political asylum. In 1997 she became a Canadian citizen and founded the Kim Foundation International, which offers medical and psychological assistance to children traumatized by war.

On Monday, she was awarded the Dresden Peace Prize in recognition of her humanitarian commitment. The prize, which has been handed out annually since 2010 in the city’s famed Semperoper, commemorates the disastrous bombing of the city on February 13-15, 1945 and is intended to stand as a reminder of the human cost of war. The prize committee stated that: “We live in times during which hate is generally at large. But it is repeatedly the victims of violence and war who renounce hate. And in doing so they demonstrate human greatness, to the shame of the preachers of hate. Kim Phuc Phan Thi has shown just such greatness and so has become a worldwide exemplar.” 

The Napalm Girl photo by Nick Ut (picture-alliance/AP Photo/N. Ut)

Kim Phuc in the Pulitzer Prize-winning image known as “The Terror of War” or “Napalm Girl”

Deutsche Welle: Do you remember the first time you actually saw that photo?

Kim Phuc: Yes, I remember it very well. It was when I came home from the hospital. My dad gave it to me and said: “Kim, is this your picture?” The first time I saw it, I couldn’t believe it — that the picture was taken that way. As a little girl I felt so embarrassed: Why I was naked and my brothers, my cousins, with clothes on? And I saw such hopelessness and agony. I thought that picture was so ugly, and I didn’t like it. I wished he hadn’t taken it.

When did that change?

Well, later I understood that picture had a big impact on people. Now I don’t feel embarrassed like before, but it was not much to me until the moment when I had a child. I had my baby, I held him, I looked at that picture and said, “How, as a mother… how dare [they]? How could I let children suffer like that? And not only my baby, but children around the world.  I never want children to suffer like that little girl.” So from that point on, it really touched me. That picture became so powerful for me. I have to go back to accept it, and work for peace. That is my choice. When the picture was taken, I had no choice. But now I have freedom, I have family, I have my baby. That picture helped me decide to do something to protect children.

When you look at that picture now, what do you see?

I can see the hopelessness, the pain, the terrible suffering of the children – me and my brothers crying. I can smell the fire, the smoke, the burning. But right now I’m so thankful I went through that. I [was] supposed to be dead. But I am so thankful that I am still alive, and that makes the picture still alive.

  • Bildergalerie Vietnam Evakuierung amerikanische Botschaft 1975

    Vietnam War: The line between past and present

    US failure

    Panicked, the US embassy’s employees in Vietnam tried to reach the roof of the consulate building to get into the last helicopter. They were later moved to US ships waiting off the country’s coast. Over a period of time, this famous picture has come to symbolize the US failure in Vietnam.

  • Bildergalerie Vietnam Kriegsmuseum Ho Chi Min-Stadt

    Vietnam War: The line between past and present

    Memories of war

    Very close to the site of the former US embassy is now a Vietnam War museum. This popular tourist spot offers a large collection of images by Vietnamese and international photographers.

  • Bildergalerie Vietnam Kriegsszene bei Cu Chi

    Vietnam War: The line between past and present

    The horror of Cu Chi

    Also on display in the musuem is a photograph capturing a war scene in Cu Chi, a town 20 kilometers away from Saigon. During the war, the Vietnamese military created a huge underground facility with command centers, hospitals and field kitchens in Cu Chi. Despite years of bombing, the US could never expel the enemy.

  • Bildergalerie Vietnam Cu Chi Tunnel

    Vietnam War: The line between past and present

    A tourist attraction

    Today, thousands of tourists crawl through the Cu Chi tunnels, which have been enlarged for Western tourists. Nevertheless, this attraction is not for claustrophobic people.

  • Bildergalerie Vietnam Vietkong-Panzer vor Präsidentenpalast in Saigon 1975

    Vietnam War: The line between past and present

    Resting in the presidential park

    A day after the last US troops left the country, the North Vietnamese soldiers rested in the park of South Vietnam’s presidential palace. After decades of war and millions of deaths, it was not only an occasion of independence but also of reunion.

  • Bildergalerie Vietnam Kriegsmuseum ehemaliger Präsidentenpalast Saigon

    Vietnam War: The line between past and present

    ‘Reunification Palace’

    Today, a popular destination in Ho Chi Minh city is the site of the “Reunification Palace.” The building is now a museum which represents more of the political dimension of the Vietnam War than its military aspects. This, of course, from the perspective of the Communist Party of Vietnam.

  • Bildergalerie Vietnam Zivilistin mit Waffe am Kopf

    Vietnam War: The line between past and present

    My Lai

    Years before the fall of Saigon, the US had lost its legitimacy in the eyes of many. The Americans killed some 504 people in a hour-long operation, notoriously known as the 1968 My Lai massacre. Old men, women, children and infants were among the dead. This massacre, however, was not the only one that took place during the war.

  • Bildergalerie Vietnam Gedenkstätte in My Lai

    Vietnam War: The line between past and present

    Monument to the dead

    At the former entrance to the village stands a socialist-style memorial to the My Lai victims. Behind the monument lies a ghost town. The cabins have been rebuilt, but they remain uninhabited. On the roads there are footprints symbolizing the dead.

  • Bildergalerie Vietnam Hoa Lo

    Vietnam War: The line between past and present

    Hanoi Hilton

    Tran Trong Duyet (shown in the black and white photo) was the warden of the notorious Hoa Lo prison, which was used by the North Vietnamese army to house, torture and interrogate captured troops – mostly American pilots shot down during the war. It was sarcastically known to American prisoners of war as “Hanoi Hilton.”

  • Bildergalerie Vietnam US-Senator John McCain im Hoa Lo-Museum

    Vietnam War: The line between past and present

    From prisoner to US senator

    The most famous former prisoner of Hanoi Hilton is US Senator John McCain. He visited the former prison in 2009 and was received cordially by the Vietnamese.

  • Bildergalerie Vietnam Ausstellung mit Kriegspostern in Hanoi

    Vietnam War: The line between past and present

    Seeking legitimacy

    The authoritarian Communist Party of Vietnam still seeks legitimacy from the Vietnam War. Old propaganda posters remind people of the Saigon victory in 1975. What is never mentioned is that it was also a civil war.

  • Bildergalerie Vietnam Poster-Shop in Hanoi

    Vietnam War: The line between past and present

    Bestselling propaganda

    The war posters still sell very well in Vietnam. There are dozens of shops in Hanoi and Saigon that have special items about the war. Most customers are tourists from the West.

  • Bildergalerie Vietnam Cong Caphe in Hanoi

    Vietnam War: The line between past and present

    The ‘Communist’ Café

    Around two-thirds of Vietnam’s 90 million inhabitants are below the age of 35. They know about the Vietnam War only through literature. Anyone traveling through the country realizes rather quickly that the war now means more to the tourists than to the Vietnamese. And the locals have capitalized on this. The Cong Caphee (Communist Café) in Hanoi attracts tourists with Vietnam War decor.

    Author: Rodion Ebbighausen / shs

Can you describe what happened that day? How your life changed?

I was nine years old and had finished my grade three. The war came to our village, so my family hid in the temple for three days. We were just allowed to play nearby in the bomb shelter. I remember we had lunch, and after lunch, the soldiers just yelled for the children to run. I was one of the children who ran to the front of the temple. Then I saw the airplane. So loud! So close to me, and so fast!

I was supposed to run, but I just stood right there. I turned my head and saw four bombs landing. Everything was so fast. Then, fire was everywhere, and the fire actually burned my clothes off. I saw the fire all over my left arm, and I used my right hand to wipe it up… I thought “Oh, my goodness! I got burned, so I will be ugly.” [I thought] people would see me a different way. And at that moment, I was so terrified that I just kept running out of that fire. I saw my brothers, my cousin, some soldiers there, and we kept running and running. And of course that moment, that picture, that day, changed my life forever.

Can you describe a little bit more how that changed your life?

My skin would never be the same. I struggled with so much pain as a child, [but] I didn’t cry. I stayed in the hospital for 14 months, and I went through 16 operations. Then I had one more operation in Germany to improve the movement in my skin. I lost all my childhood. I lost a year of school. I had so many nightmares, a lot of pain. And of course we lost everything in the attack. We barely survived.

Read more: Agent Orange aftereffects linger for many Vietnam vets

2019 Dresden Peace Prize honoree Kim Phuc und photographer Nick Ut (picture alliance/ZUMA Press/R. Chiu)

Phuc with Vietnamese-American photographer Nick Ut, who won the Pulitzer Prize for the image

In the eyes of the world, you were seen as a victim. What did that do to you? Did you feel like a victim?

As a child, I didn’t. I didn’t think much about that. But as a teenager, yes. I felt like I was trapped in that. I could see my scars, and I had to deal with the pain. Later on I had to deal with another kind of atrocity: The Vietnamese government started to use me for their propaganda. I couldn’t go to school anymore. I couldn’t fulfill my dream. And I was under control all the time.

Yes, I was a victim — not only of the war, but another kind of power. It was really miserable, but because of that I am so thankful right now that I went through the war. I know the value of peace. Now, I value freedom.

Read more: Decades on, Vietnam War legacy still complex

Now you are very involved in helping children who are victims of wars. Why is this so important to you?

I was one of millions of children who are victims of war around the world, but people gave me a future. Thank God I am still alive — but not alive with sorrow, with bitterness and hatred, but with the love of people around me. They inspire me, and now I have the opportunity to give back.

I can tell these children: “I was there, where you are now, and I want to help you. When you talk about pain, I understand. When you talk about hatred, violence —I understand. What you need is peace and joy.” I want to help them not just because of my mission, but because I love them.

When you look at the world today, do you feel that things are getting better, or do you feel that there’s even more to worry about?

I’m so happy that a lot of people have done so much, but there is still much to do. We still have hope of making the world a better place to live. If everyone can learn to live with love, with hope and forgiveness — if everyone can do that we don’t need war at all. If the little girl in that picture can do it, so can everyone.

  • Gemälde Canaletto Ansicht von Dresden

    The history of Dresden’s Frauenkirche

    Magnificent building on the Elbe

    This famous oil painting from 1751 by the Venetian artist Bernado Bellotto, also called Canaletto, shows Dresden’s Frauenkirche church and the new market. Construction on the Baroque “Church of Our Lady” began in 1726. The protestant church became part of a plan by Saxony’s prince-elector, Frederick August I, to turn his residential city of Dresden into a European metropolis.

  • Dresden Frauenkirche Kuppel

    The history of Dresden’s Frauenkirche

    A unique dome

    The reconstruction of the dome in the 1990s followed the original plans. Some 13,000 tons of sand stone were built onto a wooden frame. The Baroque dome from 1736 was a masterpiece designed by architect George Bährs. Back then, no one believed that the church pillars and walls would withstand the weight of the bell-shaped stone dome.

  • Dresden Frauenkirche Kuppel

    The history of Dresden’s Frauenkirche

    Delicate ceiling paintings

    The Frauenkirche covers the equivalent of half of the surface of a soccer field. Due to this lack of space, architect George Bähr designed up towards the sky. If you cast your eyes upwards when in the church, you’ll see paintings in the cupola depicting the four Evangelists and four Christian virtues: an identical copy of what was originally created by the Venetian artist Battista Grono.

  • Dresden Frauenkirche Lutherdenkmal

    The history of Dresden’s Frauenkirche

    Destruction during the war

    On February 13, 1945, British and US fighter planes started firebombing Dresden’s inner city. The church withstood the heat generated by the incendiary bombs for two days, until it eventually collapsed. All that remained of this jewel of European church architecture were the remnants of two walls. The 17-meter high rubble heap surrounding the ruins were left untouched until 1993.

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    The history of Dresden’s Frauenkirche

    A symbolic ruin

    Communist East Germany often organized rallies to commemorate the destruction of Dresden. In 1966, the remnants of the church were officially declared a memorial against war. On the anniversary of the bombing, February 13, 1982, the ruins became the site of a peaceful protest movement against the East German regime, making the church ruin part of a growing civil rights movement.

  • Dresden Frauenkirche Modell

    The history of Dresden’s Frauenkirche

    Post-reunification energy

    On February 13, 1990, a citizens’ initiative founded by Ludwig Güttler (pictured sitting on the left side), a noted Dresden musician, began raising funds to rebuild the Frauenkirche. Four trusts in the US, France, Britain and Switzerland and some 13,000 people worldwide supported this drive. An exhibition in the lower church shows the story of its reconstruction.

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    The history of Dresden’s Frauenkirche

    Archeological puzzle

    To reconstruct the church in 1993, hundreds of architects, art historians and engineers began sorting the thousands of stones in the rubble heap, identifying and labeling each of them for reuse. The actual reconstruction work began in 1994. Some 46 percent of the original stones were reused in the new structure. By looking closely, it is easy to identify them in the walls of the rebuilt church.

  • Frauenkirche Grabmal George Bähr

    The history of Dresden’s Frauenkirche

    Place of honor in the crypt

    The final resting place of the church’s architect re-emerged from under the rubble after having been buried for 48 years. The remains of George Bährs were preserved. Today, his restored tomb can be viewed in the lower church. It is surrounded by the graves of other local dignitaries who were also buried in the crypt during the 18th century.

  • Dresden Frauenkirche Restaurator

    The history of Dresden’s Frauenkirche

    Baroque altar

    From the chancel, you can see the impressive number of figurines standing in the altar. They were rebuilt using fragments, like those of this statue of Moses and the Ten Commandments. Nearly 80 percent of the altar was made using the original materials, making it the best preserved section of the church.

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    The history of Dresden’s Frauenkirche

    Church and concert hall

    For the past 10 years, up to 1,800 people find space in the light-flooded interior of the church. Church services and concerts are held here. This tradition goes as far back as 1843, when the famous composer Richard Wagner premiered the only piece he ever composed for choirs, “The Feast of Pentecost.” It was performed by some 1,200 singers.

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    The history of Dresden’s Frauenkirche

    The old and new landmark

    It cost around 183 million euros ($200 million) to rebuild the church, and of this sum, about 100 million came from donations. The historical streets surrounding the church were also restored to their former glory. With nearly 20 million visitors from Germany and abroad in the past 10 years, Dresden’s Frauenkirche has become a tourist magnet.

    Author: Frederike Müller / sbc

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