Sa Sokha had dreams of being an Apsara dancer, and her March wedding was all planned out. But the 18-year-old now wonders if that future is possible after a cruel acid attack left half of her face badly burned.
She and her fiancé, Kea Samnang, fell prey to a vindictive attack on Monday, allegedly carried out by Samnang’s former lover, Pach Chansereiroth.
Samnang, who sustained deep burns to his back and chest, winces as he sits up on his hospital bed; he reaches for his smartphone and points to the background image.
It’s a selfie of the young betrothed pair, snapped at a friend’s wedding.
In the picture, Sokha wears a bright red dress and a radiant smile. But today on her hospital bed, she lies flat in “Hello Kitty” pajamas, her face is swathed in white bandages with small gaps for her mouth and eyes.
“It is still painful,” she said, quietly. She hasn’t had anything to eat since the attack on Monday.
“I cannot speak much or it will hurt my mouth.”
Sokha’s desire for a career in traditional dancing, with its emphasis on grace and beauty, has dwindled to only half-hopes.
“I am so scared that my face won’t be the same,” she said.
Out of earshot, her mother, Thhy Satum, weeps and says she is trying to remain strong for her daughter and protect her from keyboard warriors on Facebook who have claimed she was not a victim and somehow deserved the attack.
“Now I am comforting my daughter in order for her not to feel depressed and hopeless,” she said. “The doctor told us she could probably not be the same, as the cheek and face are very difficult to repair. We don’t tell her about this.”
In just two months, Satum, who lives in the provinces while her daughter lives with an aunt in Phnom Penh, was hoping to be celebrating with her daughter on her wedding day – she has already paid for the music, the food, the clothing and the decorations.
“Now I’m not sure if we can do it or not. We will wait and see,” Satum said.
Back in the shared hospital room, Samnang says he made it clear to Chansereiroth that their relationship was over once he became engaged to Sokha in the middle of last year. “I just can’t believe that someone would have such bad intentions to do this to us.”
He explained Chansereiroth had approached him on Monday and, claiming she was feeling unwell, asked for him to give her a lift home on his moto. Once they were driving away, she allegedly doused them in sulfuric acid. “I hope the police will punish her as much as she made us suffer,” Samnang said.
Chansereiroth has been arrested and questioned by police and is expected to be sent to court this morning, Sen Sok district police chief Mok Hong said.
“We accused the suspect of intentional violence with aggravating circumstances,” he said. “We have enough evidence for her crime; we have the victim and witness statements, and her confession.”
The court will ultimately decide on the charges, but Chansereiroth could face up to 10 years in prison.
But the same legislation that has been credited with a steady decrease in acid attacks since it introduced harsher penalties for perpetrators in 2012 has proven little use for victims in other areas.
The Acid Law stipulates that the government shall provide legal support to the victims of attacks involving concentrated acid. “The protection, rehabilitation, and reintegration of victims of Concentrated Acid attack back into society shall be under the competence of Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation,” Article 12 of the law reads.
Yet Social Affairs spokesman Em Chan Makara yesterday admitted no such support had ever been provided. “So far we have never engaged with or done anything to help any acid victim,” he said.
“When we talk about social services, I think our government is referring to the Education Ministry, Labour Ministry and Health Ministry. We don’t have an acid department, and I have never known social affairs to be responsible for acid victim cases.”
Erin Bourgois, who previously worked at the now-defunct Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, said the group’s monitoring found an apparent lack of government support for the long-term care required for victims to heal.
“Medical and social services are supposed to be provided [free of charge] by the government to acid patients . . . but when we monitored care provided by the [government], survivors reported no support was received,” she said.
That this latest case bore many of the traditional hallmarks of acid attacks – targeting the face to disfigure the victim, attacking over a perceived infidelity – shows, Bourgios said, that “more needs to be done to regulate acid so it does not get in the wrong hands and to bring perpetrators to justice”.
Preah Kossamak Hospital plastic surgeon Say Bonvath said the couple would be in hospital for at least four weeks. “They are emotionally haunted, they are suffering from lack of blood and they are dehydrated,” he said.
The depth of the burn on Samang’s back means skin from his thigh would need to be grafted over the wound, while Sokha’s face will be forever scarred.
Though the pair have received no government assistance or help from NGOs, Sokha’s school community has so far banded together to donate 1 million riel ($247). Vin Lay Chour, acting director at the public Secondary School of Fine Arts, said the teachers and students stood behind Sokha in the wake of the violent attack.
“Our school has a stance to fully support her until she finishes her study if she is not too seriously disabled,” she said. “We fully support her not to give up her career in art if her passion is still strong.”