For the victims of acid attacks, the journey of healing is long and painful – and sometimes doesn’t even seem worthwhile
Luy Sovannaroth cradles his wife Moung Sreymom’s head as doctors from Phnom Penh’s Children’s Surgical Centre (CSC) dress her burns. It’s been a daily ritual for the past three months.
Srey Mom sits in a blue plastic chair, not unlike the one she sat in with her two-year-old daughter when she was doused with acid on November 19.
Doctors usually begin with the 31-year-old’s face, prying away the previous day’s blood-soaked gauze with the same meticulous care with which Srey Mom once applied make-up at her cosmetics store in Takeo province’s Kiri Vong district.
Her right arm, right shoulder and torso are next. Sometimes Sovannaroth holds the oxygen tube close to her mouth or rubs her hands and feet, all the time wishing he was the one enduring the excruciating pain instead.
Pregnant, with burns to 44 per cent of her body, Srey Mom lost her right ear 10 days after the attack. Then she lost her unborn child.
“She asked the doctors to inject her dead,” Sovannaroth, 31, confided one day after helping to dress her wounds.
“But I always encourage her and try to convince her by saying: ‘If you die, what about me and our daughter? We cannot live without you.’”
A horrific form of violence
Although the frequency of incidents has dropped since Cambodia introduced harsher penalties in 2012 and restrictions on the substance’s sale in 2013, acid continues to be used in horrific revenge attacks.
On March 6, three weeks after Srey Mom was discharged from hospital, Meas Vanny, a 20-year-old security guard at a Phnom Penh garment factory, became the first reported acid attack victim of 2015.
Her attacker, Sroeun Nann, 40, who faces an attempted murder charge, allegedly doused Vanny believing that she was having an affair with her husband, who was one of Vanny’s co-workers.
Yesterday, Dr Keo Vanna, the same surgeon who treated Srey Mom, operated on Vanny at Phnom Penh’s Calmette hospital.
Although the full extent of acid burns is often hard to gauge immediately, with the acid seeping deeper into the skin over time, both Srey Mom and Vanny arrived in a critical condition. Vanna called Vanny’s injuries the worst he had operated on.
“Acid violence is among the most horrific and devastating forms of violence,” said Erin Bourgois, former project manager of the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC), who believes the restrictions on the sale of acid are poorly enforced.
“It rarely kills but leaves victims scarred physically and emotionally for life.”
Doused mostly on her head, Vanny’s left eye was completely destroyed and her right rendered almost useless. Speaking on Thursday before her surgery, she recalled being asked by an unknown woman carrying a black bucket whether she worked at Ho Hsin Tai shoe factory. She answered yes. The women went away, then returned and raised the bucket.
“I thought it was water, but when she threw it on me, I knew it was acid,” she said.
‘Like living in hell’
Srey Mom and Sovannaroth now share a small room in a Phnom Penh house subsidised by a charity.
Although slowly healing, her burns cause constant pain. Morphine tablets and sleep bring little respite, Srey Mom said, describing her days as “like living in hell”.
Sovannaroth has lodged a complaint against his wife’s attackers for $500,000, money he wants to use to take her abroad for cosmetic surgery.
Living mostly off borrowings, the couple is a long way from the life they once thought they would have.
After getting married in 2011, they moved to Takeo to open a cosmetics store, a natural choice given Srey Mom’s training at a salon and passion for make-up.
Soon came daughter Sok Met Molita, who spent her time playing with other vendors at Tunlob market, including Srey Mom’s alleged attacker, 22-year-old Beng Leakhena, whose parents – Nhe Deng, 56, and Seng Kim Leng, 55 – owned the store across from Srey Mom’s.
“Our relationship was good,” Sovannaroth recalled, adding that he even helped the family open up in the morning for a few months for extra cash.
“We never argued ... we never thought they’d dare to pour acid on my wife like this.”
Different versions of the story
CASC has recorded 336 acid attacks in Cambodia since 1964, injuring at least 420 people. According to their research, victims cited jealousy, hate and perceived infidelity among the motives. However, many had no idea why they were attacked.
In Srey Mom’s case, it started with an argument over a customer who, according to witnesses, wanted to buy an $8 tent.
On November 17, recalls dentist Nov Sokun, who practises from a shop near Srey Mom and Leakhena’s stores, a fight broke out. Who attacked who first is disputed. Sovannaroth says it was Leakhena who first hit Srey Mom; Sokun recalls Srey Mom striking the first blow.
“They beat each other, and [Srey Mom] scratched Leakhena’s face,” said Sokun, who spoke at a nearby pagoda out of fear of Leakhena’s family, who he said were “rich and powerful”.
“[Leakhena’s] family filed a complaint, but the authorities said that both the families fought, so they needed to sort it out themselves.”
Speaking from their home next to the market, Leakhena’s parents denied they knew what their daughter was planning.
“On the day of the acid attack, we were at home,” said mother Kim Leng after showing a photo of her daughter’s face covered with scratches. Deng added: “I don’t know where or when or how [Leakhena] bought the acid … if I had known, I would have stopped it.”
Sokun, Srey Mom and Sovannaroth tell a different story. They say the market felt “strange” that morning as, rather than Leakhena opening up alone as was the norm, her parents and 28-year-old older brother Beng Meas were there.
They claim, after Sovannaroth had opened the store, that Kim Leng placed a 5-litre container, with what looked like water, metres from where at 7am Srey Mom fed rice to Molita and Sokun’s three-year-old daughter.
“Because there was chilli in the food, my daughter ran back to me for some water,” Sokun recalled.
“Then a few minutes later, Leakhena used the acid on Srey Mom and her child … at the same time, her brother rushed and beat her husband.”
Sokun alleged the parents then led their children to a waiting car before returning to briefly watch while he, his wife and another vendor poured water on Srey Mom and Molita before taking them on their motorbikes to hospital.
Another market trader, who refused to be named, also recalled the whole family’s presence on the day but, when pressed for details, stopped speaking in Khmer and said in English: “Can’t speak, afraid”.
The perils of healing
When human skin is burned severely, the body shifts to what’s known as a catabolic state. Sensing an emergency, it expends as much energy as possible, explained Yong-June Kim, one of Srey Mom’s doctors.
After a few days, the tissue granulates, turning pink and bleeding. “This is a body trying to heal by making capillary vessels and connective tissues,” he said.
The problem, said Kim, is that without a skin barrier, proteins and nutrients leak out of the regenerating tissue, providing food for bacteria. In other words, as the body tries recover, it becomes more susceptible to deadly infections.
In most Western hospitals, burns patients are kept in sterile units to protect them, but in Cambodia, as Srey Mom’s surgeon Vanna explained: “We don’t have the resources.”
In Srey Mom’s case, her body was able to fight off infection enough to allow doctors to perform two skin grafts.
In two three-hour operations, healthy skin from her legs was sliced off, pressed to increase its size and placed on her back and under her arm where it bonded to the granulating tissue.
Vanny yesterday went into surgery to undergo the same procedure.
After starting at 8am, she was still in the operating theatre at press time last night.
Support and despair
After reading about Vanny’s case on Facebook, Sovannaroth visited the family to offer his support.
Before CASC rolled back the bulk of its services in January – citing the drop from 30 attacks in 2010 to five last year – it encouraged survivors to exchange phone numbers and support each other.
With acid attack victims facing intense stigma in Cambodia, survivors like 28-year-old Jariya Scott, doused 10 years ago in Phnom Penh, make it their duty to reach out to recent victims like Srey Mom.
“People think we are wrong, that we’ve done something wrong,” Scott said. “But I encourage Srey Mom – I tell her they’re stupid.”
Scott said Srey Mom worries for Molita, whose face will bear scars for the rest of her life.
Fearing another attack, the family has sent her to live with relatives. They also decided to leave the hospital after an unexplained visit from the suspect’s grandmother.
“I am really afraid the suspects will do the same thing to me,” Srey Mom said, beginning to cry. “I cannot be happy until they are caught.”
Although police have issued a warrant for Meas and Leakhena, who have reportedly fled to Vietnam, the couple are losing hope they’ll be arrested.
Meanwhile, the suspect’s parents, Deng and Kim Leng – who say they haven’t heard from their children and fear reprisals themselves – were detained overnight in December but released without charge.
“I really want revenge,” Srey Mom said. “But I could not use acid; I want revenge through the law.”
“I tell my daughter that I am fine, that I will take her for a walk when I recover. I don’t want her to feel hopeless, but behind my daughter I cry because I am not sure I can do it.
“I don’t know when I’ll recover and can again face the public.”
Additional reporting by Vandy Muong