Ho Chi Minh City – Inside a small private room in the burn unit of a sprawling 10-story government hospital here, 16-year-old acid-attack victim Tat Marina recently lay motionless on her back, her head bandaged, her eyes staring blankly at the ceiling.
Her body beneath a green hospital dressing gown and a white sheet resembled a twig rather than a human. Since suffering an acid attack on Dec 5, the karaoke video actress had nearly died and her body had withered from 51 kg to 37 kg [112 lbs to 81 lbs].
For nearly an hour, Tat Marina had been still except to lift her burned right arm and to softly ask for more cushioning under her head. But even in this fragile state, she wanted to talk and, with great effort, uttered a few barely audible phrases.
“I’m very hurt, I’m very hurt that I cannot do anything in the future,” she said, starting to cry. “I cry to reduce the hurt from my heart, from my mind. I don’t know why this has happened to me.”
It has been two months since Tat Marina, known as “Rina” in the karaoke video business, was attacked while eating rice soup with her 3-year-old niece near the Olympic Market in Phnom Penh.
According to police, witnesses and family members, Tat Marina was yanked to the ground, kicked and kneed in the chest repeatedly until she passed out. She was then doused with more than a liter of nitric acid.
Soon after the attack, the district police chief identified the prime suspects as Khoun Sophal the wife of Council of Ministers Undersecretary of State Svay Sitha, and two bodyguards. In late December a municipal court judge issued an arrest warrant for Khoun Sophal.
But today Khoun Sophal remains at large and the two bodyguards who allegedly accompanied her remain unidentified with no warrants for their arrest.
Lek Vannak, the municipality’s judiciary police chief, said Thursday in Phnom Penh that he believes Khoun Sophal is in the capital under someone’s protection.
“We are working hard to try to locate her whereabouts and arrest her,” Lek Vannak said. “I have asked all police stationed in all districts to be watchful.” He said Svay Sitha hasn’t been questioned, “because a husband and wife usually love each other, and I don’t think he could speak [the truth].”
Police previously acknowledged that a key piece of evidence—a car seized at the scene—was almost immediately handed back to Svay Sitha’s family “following orders from the top.”
The high-profile case has cast a number of issues into the spotlight: the issue of men taking mistresses or what are called “second wives,” the increasing number of brutal acid attacks, and a persistent culture of impunity as Cambodia tries to convince the international community that it can conduct an impartial trial of Khmer Rouge leaders.
This week, Prime Minister Hun Sen would not respond directly when asked at an Asian editors forum in Phnom Penh what the government would do about the Tat Marina case. He said reporters had the right to ask questions, but politicians had the right to decide whether or not to answer them. “That’s it,” he said, moving on to the next question.
But for Tat Marina, the story is not about broad issues and unanswered questions. For her, the story is about an intense personal struggle to survive and find new meaning in a society where beauty is defined by outward appearance, in which second wives are scorned by society, and in which misfortunes are attributed to misdeeds in past lives.
“I don’t know what I did in a past life [to deserve this],” Tat Marina said in a recent interview in a hospital here in Ho Chi Minh City. “But I believe I might have done some bad things…”
In fact, Tat Marina might have escaped harm if it hadn’t been for a string of bad luck that fateful day.
Instead, she faces years of recovery.
Her head, neck, back, chest and wrists were all ravaged by acid burns. Her ears have been removed. Her lips remain swollen and plastic tubes have been installed in her nostrils to keep her nose from closing. She can see close up, but objects farther away are fuzzy. Some days, she said she can hear; other days she can barely hear at all.
A doctor in Vietnam told her not to look at photographs of herself or look into the mirror because it might make her depressed.
“But I want to see my photo,” Tat Marina said.
She added, however that when she looks at herself, “I look like a ghost, so I hate myself, detest myself, Everyone is afraid of me, including my 3-year-old niece. She stopped calling me mom. She will only touch my fingers.”
Indeed, Tat Marina’s biggest challenge may be facing and conquering her conviction that she has no place in society.
“In Cambodia, the view in society is that the second wife…is no good. She took someone’s husband,” said Sam Kaknitha, a senator who participated in recent discussions about acid attacks, jealous wives and second wives.
Disfigured women in Cambodia generally have little future, she added.
Interviews with family members including a brother in the US, doctors and others paint the following picture of Tat Marina leading through the day of the acid attack. Many family members would not talk because they fear Svay Sitha may decide to no longer pay for Tat Marina’s medical expenses.
Tat Marina was born on Oct 21, 1983, the third-youngest in a Phnom Penh family of nine.
A family member remembers her as a joyful child who was always pretty and popular.
“She liked to have fun, make everyone happy,” the family member said. Outside the home, she was a bit more reserved.
Tat Marina was forced to drop out of school when she was a young teen-ager to help support her parents, who are in their mid-50s and early 60s.
“Her parents are very poor. They did not have a job,” said a family member. “She had to look for a job to help out with the living expenses.”
Tat Marina became a fruitshake vendor near the corners of Monivong and Kampuchea Krom boulevards. But her dream was to become a karaoke star.
She started spending some of her extra money going to small karaoke places to practice singing, a family member said. She eventually landed work with a film production company.
That job didn’t work out, but it led to modeling assignments for alcohol advertisements. Golden CD Music Productions, which produces karaoke videos, spotted her at an advertising show in 1998 and hired her to do karaoke videos.
The karaoke videos didn’t require her to sing. Instead she was expected to act coy, slinky and occasionally sway rhythmically to the music. In one cut from the video disc Golden Karaoke Vol 17, Tat Marina is wearing a black off-the-shoulder gown and is engaged in a playful pantomime with a young Cambodian man on the grounds of a pagoda off National Route 5.
Kong Vuthy, a producer for Golden CD, said the company hired Tat Marina because of her good looks and paid her $20 a day for her work.
“She was not very popular at the time [she performed], but she might have been popular in the future,” Kong Vuthy said in a recent interview. “It is very difficult to say who performs better because there are so many karaoke performers.”
Tat Marina was generous with her money, a family member said, frequently giving neighbors in need 10,000 riel [US$2.63]. She also helped support her parents and paid her younger brother’s school fees.
“At the time, I was so happy to have money to pay for my parents and my younger brother,” Tat Marina said.
Tat Sequindo, a medical assistant in the US, met his sister for the first time last year. He had survived the Khmer Rouge regime, lived in border camps and arrived in the US in 1983. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s he said, that he got confirmation that his parents were still alive.
“I had prayed to God to bring me to see my family,” Tat Sequindo said in a recent interview in Phnom Penh. Last May his prayer came true with a family reunion in Cambodia.
But that dream turned into a nightmare, when Tat Sequindo returned in mid-January to see Tat Marina in a hospital bed disfigured for life.
“I felt so depressed and confused,” Tat Sequindo said. “It was like she just got up from the killing fields. She looked like a little piece of incense.”
Tat Marina’s youthful beauty and relative popularity as a karaoke video performer made her a prime target to become someone’s mistress.
In Cambodia, men with money often look for young, attractive women to support as mistresses, or second wives. The tradition dates back decades. Karaoke video stars recently have become sought after.
Tat Marina said that a friend of Svay Sitha knew her. One day, according to a family member, Svay Sitha walked into the studio to meet Tat Marina and gave her his telephone number.
At the time, Svay Sitha was a rising star in the government and the ruling CPP.
The gregarious official, known for his quick wit and chain-smoking had been an adviser to Hun Sen, had played a key role on a government human rights committee and was now secretary-general of a government committee working to reduce the military.
Svay Sitha couldn’t be reached this week and didn’t respond to a written request for an interview.
Tat Marina said Svay Sitha telephoned her many times after their first meeting, saying he was an unmarried businessman and that he “loved” her very much. She said she was skeptical.
“I wasn’t interested because I thought he had a wife already,” she said.
Finally, his persistence paid off and they started seeing each other beginning in early 1999, Tat Marina said.
She was 15 years old at the time.
Tat Marina said she grew to truly love Svay Sitha, and not for his money or property. “I loved him because he loved me so much,” she said.
He set her up with an apartment moving the location once, according to family member. The second apartment, which cost $120 a month, was just a few hundred meters from the site of the attack.
After Tat Marina found out Svay Sitha had a wife, she said her feelings changed. She said she didn’t want to live “illegally” and decided to end the relationship.
“I tried to tell him many times: ‘I can’t live with you because you have a wife already.'”
But she said, Svay Sitha pressured her to stay with him, saying she would have a bigger problem if she left him. He would get angry when she tried to leave him, she said. He also demanded that she quit the karaoke video business.
“If he [Svay Sitha] agreed to leave me when I suggested, this case wouldn’t have happened. I would have a good future,” she said.
A day before the acid attack, family members said Svay Sitha told Tat Marina to prepare to move to Battambang.
It is unclear how much danger Tat Marina knew she was in on the day of the attack. “I only knew that Svay Sitha had asked me to go to Battambang,” she said.
That afternoon, she went out shopping for a cellular phone for her parents so she could keep in contact with her family from Battambang. Her sister and her 3-year-old niece accompanied her.
Her brother-in-law stayed behind in the apartment Svay Sitha rented for Tat Marina, according to family members.
While the three were gone, two women and a man came to the outside gate, looking for Tat Marina. Other men were seen waiting in cars outside. After the three had let a neighbor told the brother-in-law that one of the women was Svay Sitha’s wife.
Family members said the brother-in-law tried repeatedly to reach Tat Marina on her mobile telephone, but couldn’t get through. He also called Svay Sitha, who immediately warned him that his wife was looking for Tat Marina.
About that time, Tat Marina was returning from her shopping trip. Her niece said she was hungry, so Tat Marina’s sister dropped the two off at a street vendor. Tat Marina ordered rice soup and sat down with her niece.
Tat Marina’s sister, meanwhile, drove the motorcycle back to the apartment. When she arrived, family members said, her husband told her about the possible danger Tat Marina was in. Within minutes, the two set off for the market on foot.
But it would be too late.
Just minutes before, Tat Marina remembers a lady coming up behind her, yanking her down onto the street by her hair and kicking her in her thighs with high heels. She recalls being surrounded by “five or six men,” with at least one of them kneeing her repeatedly in her chest until she passed out.
According to witness accounts provided to family members, Tat Marina was lying face down, as two men went to a car parked nearby and brought back a container of nitric acid. A woman–identified by police as Svay Sitha’s wife–began pouring the acid over the back of Tat Marina’s head.
Family members estimate about 3 liters were poured over Tat Marina from a 5-liter container. A police investigator said the container held only 2 liters.
Tat Marina said she recalls waking up, feeling very hot and starting to shout and scream.
“I’m very hurt, I’m very hurt,” she recalled screaming. “But no one knew how to help. They were just standing there.”
Tat Marina said she ran toward a nearby house, initially pursued by the woman suspect. People in the house, she said, tried to wash the acid off her body with water.
Tat Marina was lucky, witnesses and family members said, because she was face down during the attack and she instinctively protected her eyes
Still, today, two months after the attack her face is heavily damaged by acid that dripped onto it.
During the chaos, Svay Sitha’s wife spilled some of the acid on herself and at least one of the bodyguards, according to witness accounts.
As the sister and brother-in-law walked toward the market, a woman was walking toward them carrying their 3-year-old child. The woman had whisked the child to safety as the attack started. Now, knowing that Tat Marina was in grave danger, the brother-in- started running to the scene.
He arrived just in time to see a man taking off his acid-burned pants, and a woman, with vapors rising from her dress, trying to get away in a car.
According to family members, the brother-in-law, a policeman with the Ministry of Interior, pulled the woman suspect out of the car. But he let her go.
He later told family members that he did so because he needed to help Tat Marina first. He also said that if he had arrested Khoun Sophal it would not have held up anyway because she had power and money, family members quoted him as saying.
Victims describe third-degree burns as one of the most painful injuries a person can endure. A third-degree burn means all of the skin layers have been damaged. Acid burns especially are insidious, literally melting away the layers of skin.
As police arrived—about 15 minutes after the incident—family members were trying to rush Tat Marina by motorbike to a private hospital.
The first hospital told the family it did not have the facilities to treat acid burns, and referred them to Kossamak Hospital, which has a burn unit. An ambulance took Tat Marina to Kossamak, but she didn’t arrive in the emergency room until more than an hour after the incident.
It is unclear how much of that time Tat Marina was even conscious. Family members said her body initially turned white, swelled, then her skin began to melt away and her body oozed.
“I should have died that day,” Tat Marina recalled.” I probably would have died if I didn’t think about my parents and my younger brother and sister.”
It was touch-and-go for several days. Tat Marina initially went blind in one eye. She lost almost all of her hair and her ears turned black She lost part of her hearing.
During a severe burn, the functions of the immune system are depressed. Infection is the leading cause of death, so antibiotics must be taken.
Fluids and pain drugs also are important and eating enough food is a concern because burn patients consume a huge number of calories while fighting off infection.
A critical part of the treatment is to cut away the tissue that has been burned so that healthy tissue will not be affected.
Dr Eng Kim San, a doctor at Kossamak who treated Tat Marina, said he cut away tissue on her back, chest and neck, but spared her ears on instructions from her family
“The acid damaged 43 percent of her body,” he said in a recent interview. “If it was 50 percent, she would have died.”
Tat Marina said her neck and chest especially were in pain, the latter not only because of the burns but of the beating, she said. “I coughed up blood sometimes or sometimes blood came through my nose.”
As healing takes place and the burn victim becomes stronger, grafts of healthy skin from other parts of the body are used to cover the burned areas permanently. That process can take months if not years to complete.
About two weeks ago, family members moved Tat Marina temporarily to a burn unit in a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City where she could get skin grafts.
Tat Marina was taken by stretcher in an ambulance on potholed National Route 1. Along the way, family members said, she cried out, bit her lip to mask her pain, and passed out several times.
Tat Marina was taken to Cho Ray Hospital, which is run by the Ministry of Health in Vietnam. It is a huge, sprawling complex that appears poorly equipped for the number of patients it serves.
But Tat Marina did have a small—if dingy—air-conditioned private room with a bed, a sink and a bathroom. Family members brought her food to eat and milk to drink.
There, a Vietnamese doctor quickly made the decision to cut away all of her external ear tissue to prevent infection to other parts of her head.
During her stay in Vietnam, healthy skin from her leg and an upper arm was grafted onto her neck and part of her face, including her right eyelid, in two separate operations.
The doctor told her that her face could be improved, but that she would have to go to a place such as Japan or the US for reconstructive surgery for her ears. And they told her that she would have to live with acid-burn scars over much of the rest of her bod
“My body and face are now very ugly,” Tat Marina said. “I cannot imagine getting my beauty back.”
Women’s experts said it will be difficult for Tat Marina. They noted that society generally scorns both the disfigured and those who have affairs with married men.
“In Cambodian society, the first wife is legal, the second wife is illegal,” said Sam Kaknitha, the senator.
“Some might say, Marina was a very young and popular girl–why did she take a man who has a wife already?”
But Sam Kaknitha said others might view Tat Marina with mercy since she was a victim of an acid attack. “Some may criticize the first wife as being very cruel.”
Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development said in her opinion Svay Sitha, Khoun Sophal and Tat Marina are all guilty as well as all being victims.
She said Svay Sitha made the biggest mistake, for not taking responsibility for his family.
“As a family leader, he has to keep peace and honor for his wife and children,” she said.
Tat Marina is wrong for entering the affair, Chea Vannath said, and the first wife is wrong for the alleged brutal attack The attack should be treated as a criminal case, Chea Vannath added.
Since the accident, Svay Sitha has taken responsibility, family members say, supervising Tat Marina’s case, paying for a her medical expenses and calling and visiting her frequently. But they wonder how long he will stay by her side.
“I feel he has mercy,” Tat Sequindo said of Svay Sitha. “But if she doesn’t get her beauty back in the future, he will disown her.”
Tat Marina said she also has little hope for justice.
“We are so poor, we have no power,” she said. “We have no money and even if we complain to the court, we will lose.”
That prospect makes Tat Sequindo angry. Through Tat Marina’s case, he sees a government that only works for the rich and powerful, not for poor victims such as Tat Marina.
“They don’t care about [the Cambodian people],” he said. “They only care about the government…. There should not be any mercy on [those involved].
“And if they are not prosecuted, it’s not good for society. If they don’t give a lesson, people will do this again and again.”
In fact, acid attacks—a trend for some time in Cambodia, have increased in frequency since Tat Marina’s case, according to hospital officials. Kossamak itself has seen eight acid attack victims since mid-December, said Eng Kim San, compared with one or two every few months.
Meanwhile, Tat Marina said that even now, two months after the attack, she wonders if she should live or die.
“I don’t think anybody can help me…now I feel very hopeless.”
She said that she hurts inside when she thinks that from now on she won’t be able to help her parents, who are getting old.
She said she yearns for the sound of her brother to call to her again, “Sister, sister, I need money to go to school.”
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)
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