Acid victims learn to face the future

Acid victims learn to face the future

All Eang Sopheach can look forward to for the next few months is an incredible amount of pain. One of Cambodia’s many acid-attack survivors, she has terrible burns on her arms, hands, legs, chest and face.

Eang Sopheach, who recently turned 30, tries to limit her movements to a bare minimum.

She spends most of her days sitting on a bed, while her mother fans the air to keep flies away from her.

Eang Sopheach’s mother quit her job as a farmer in Kampong Thom province to take care of her.

“I have a lot of pain inside, but I need to stay strong and improve my daughter’s situation,” she says.

The attack occurred on May 21 this year. Eang Sopheach and her husband were riding a motorcycle in Phnom Penh when two male motorcyclists threw acid at the couple.

Her husband suffered only minor injuries, but she was taken to hospital in a critical condition.

Eang Sopheach stayed in the Toul Kork Clinic for two days before a doctor called the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC) hotline.

The charity arranged for her transfer to the Children’s Surgical Centre (CSC), which specialises in treating acid-attack victims.

The groups work together closely, with the CSC providing urgent treatment and the CASC focusing on long-term support for victims.

Eang Sopheach stayed at the surg-ical centre for just over a month,  undergoing several operations, and  recently arrived at the CASC.

Acid attacks are a premeditated form of violence often used as a means of revenge. Not only do they cause horrific physical damage, but they can ruin social and psychological lives.

Many victims of acid attacks end up living as social pariahs, which is why the CASC aims to encourage survivors to “look forward”.

Since 1999, the CSC and the CASC have recorded and helped 256 acid- burn survivors, but this figure does not encompass the many unreported cases every year.

Dr Horng Lairapo has worked at CASC since late 2009, and is chief of its medical and legal unit.

Holding both a medical degree and a doctorate in law and criminology from the Royal Academy of Cambodia, he says he was drawn to CASC because he wanted to “bring hope back into the survivors’ lives”.  “I know what being hopeless is. I was in a refugee camp during the conflict with Vietnam, and that sense of hopelessness is horrible,” he says.

The main challenge of his job, Horng explains, is not the medical aspect but the legal one.

Using the legal system to win justice and safety for patients is the best way to prevent future attacks. But  many don’t want to seek legal redress, because attacks are often conducted by people close to the victim – or even their own family.

Eang Sopheach has refused to press charges because she has “never had any enemies”. Centre staff, however, believe the attack may have been related to a love triangle, perhaps involving her husband.

Horng says this is a common scen-ario. His job as legal officer mostly consists of providing medical expertise to be used as evidence in court, but it often doesn’t go that far.

Acid victim Chhum Nor, who was attacked by her husband in 1998, intended to press charges but her husband fled to New Zealand, making  Horng’s legal work useless.

Moreover, the sentences imposed on acid-attack perpetrators are still short – usually two or three years in prison – making the victim a possible target for further retaliation once the attacker gets out of jail.

CASC project manager Ziad Samman hopes a law, now being  drafted and discussed by the council of ministers, will address this issue. “The sentences should reflect the nature of the crime,” he says.

But even if it cannot always provide legal solutions, the CASC team  runs several programs to support  patients after attacks.

Each patient is closely followed by the medical team, and usually undergoes several physiotherapy sess-ions a day. They also have group therapy and psychological counsell-ing to help them make plans.

Som Bunnarith, another resident at the centre, was blinded after his wife threw acid in his face. He is now a counsellor at the centre as well as an accomplished keyboard player.

He uses his skills to support the patients and “raise their spirits”.

Eang Sopheach, even though she is a new patient at the centre, is already considering returning to her home province to open a shop and be close to her family.

The NGO offers vocational training and several development courses. It recently started an agricultural project to grow food for patients and teach them useful farming skills.

The BABS (Bags by Acid Burn Survivors) programme has a similar aim. Women are taught to make bags to sell, giving them extra skills and a way to earn income.

CASC also runs the only workshop in Cambodia making compression bandages and garments, useful in reducing scarring after acid attacks.

Although the fight against acid violence is far from over, the work of CASC and CSC offers victims a chance to overcome their trauma.

“After I was attacked, and I was in hospital, I was devastated. Not only from the pain – I thought my life was over,’’ Eang Sopheach says.

“But thanks to my family and CASC, I can begin to hope for a future.”