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Moving past the pain, victims help others cope with acid attacks

Survivors of acid attacks, a hideously disfiguring crime that leaves lasting physical and emotional scars, have struggled to overcome depression by working with other acid victims

HENG CHIVOAN

Acid-attack survivors Em Hang (L) and Doeb Da were both unintended victims.

LIFE has been cruel to Em Hang. Before contracting Aids from her now-deceased husband, she was the victim of an acid attack - as a bystander who was splashed with the corrosive liquid while trying to help the victim. But like many other survivors of acid attacks, the 34-year-old has had to learn to keep going.

"My life is full of bitter memories, like of family members who said I stole someone's husband," she said. "But I will live just to see my daughter have a good future."

The widow and mother from Kampong Thom province recalled how she was an innocent victim of the attack, in which a jealous woman got angry with her husband and poured acid on him. Em Hang went to help, but the wind blew the liquid on her face.

"Everyone said that I was involved with the love affair," she said. "But I was not."

Keeping her whole head covered, except her right eye, Em Hang told the Post that she came for treatment at a hospital in Phnom Penh and was then referred to the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity in 2002.

MANY SURVIVORS ARE ANXIOUS AND DEPRESSED... THEY HATE THEMSELVES.

"It has not been easy, with this life, to live until today. I attempted to kill my self several times, as my beauty was gone," she said. "Since acid burned my face, I went out covering my face and head. No one could see my face."

In 2005, she married her second husband in Phnom Penh, but did not know that he was HIV-positive. Her husband died in 2006, and she learned he had transmitted the disease to her.

"I lost my beauty and carried Aids at the same time," she said.

"I am afraid of death now, but I must survive."

Em Hang is now an assistant to the medical staff at the Children's Surgical Center, which is the sister organisation to the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC).

Help others to help yourself

Doeb Da, 19, and Mom Silin, 27, are also survivors of acid violence who turned to CASC in an attempt to forget their own troubles and try to help others in similar circumstances.

They both said that being burned with acid has emotionally and physically devastated them.

 "It is a cruel act to take revenge with acid," said Doeb Da. "I want all perpetrators to stand trial.

"My mother died after an acid attack in 2002 when a lady got jealous about her husband," he said. "My mother did not love [this other lady's husband]. She was just a good neighbour."

For Mom Silin, the acid attack robbed him of a bright future as he lost the sight in his left eye and had to give up his studies.

"I really want to continue my studies" he said.

"Now I have a new life at CASC, and I have to struggle and forget the past," he added. "I'm not depressed at all right now. I've gained confidence and continue to live."

A report by the Cambodian rights group Licadho, Living in the Shadows: Acid Attacks in Cambodia, said that almost 30 percent of victims are not intended targets of acid attacks, but are injured by chance.

The report highlights the fact that such attacks are usually calculated and attackers, who were more commonly male, tended to pick their weapon with the conscious aim of permanently disfiguring their victims.

Many survivors describe it as a crime worse than murder, as their psychological scars made life very difficult to bear.

Nora Lindstrom, project manager for CASC, told the Post that the lasting emotional effects of acid attacks were more like a form of torture.

"Many survivors are anxious, depressed, scared. They feel revenge of other people. They hate themselves because it affects them physically. Their sense of self is gone. It is a long journey for them to get self-esteem and confidence back."

She explained that most acid attacks in Cambodia are motivated by an irrational suspicion over extramarital affairs, as well as jealousy and personal disputes.

The majority of perpetrators have never been sent to trial, she added.

Extent of attacks unknown

Treatment for acid attacks is expensive. While those who can afford it travel to neighbouring countries such as Vietnam, most survivors come from a poor background are left helpless.

"We can't get a figure on the number of acid attack each year as there is no report from hospitals or other clinics," she said, adding that right now "there are 195 survivors registered with CASC", which is the only organisation dealing exclusively with acid burns and acid attacks.

She explained that the goal of the organisation is to integrate survivors back into society. "We try to support them, to empower them to become members of society again."

Acid violence is not unique to Cambodia. Attacks occur all over the world, though predominantly in developing countries where acid is relatively cheap and more available.

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