Lim Reth’s beautiful face was burned off Monday—by the man who fathered the child she is carrying.
Thursday, the pregnant victim lay stock still in a hospital, her face and neck swathed in white bandages like an Egyptian mummy, her vacant eyes surrounded by burned, hairless skin. At the foot of her bed, her mother solemnly displayed a picture of a pretty, young girl standing in front of the ocean, smiling shyly and wrapping her arm around her husband.
Those carefree days are gone forever.
“I begged him many times. I said don’t do it, she is pregnant,” the mother, Lim Savay, said. “I didn’t believe he would do this.”
Four days ago, Lim Reth, 26, became Phnom Penh’s newest acid-attack victim. Three others have taken up residence down the hall at Kossamak Hospital since—a surge doctors at the hospital say far exceeds the one victim a month average there.
A high-profile case earlier this month involving the wife of a prominent government adviser and an 18-year-old karaoke singer has drawn attention to the relatively new and increasingly popular weapon of choice for the jealous, the angry and the scorned. And human rights workers and doctors say they are concerned that a growing number of Cambodians are being subjected to it.
A visit to Phsar Thmei earlier this week revealed that a liter of nitric acid used in the karaoke singer attack was easily available from shop keepers for 3,500 riel. The destructive liquid is used to separate metal from gold. If that is unavailable battery acid can do the trick.
The effects of the acid can be devastating.
Lim Reth’s husband decided to throw it in her face after locking her in the house and telling her mother “she is so beautiful and everybody looks at her. I want to make her ugly.” A few doors down, Tang Samarina, the karaoke singer, lies behind a closely-guarded door with burns on 50 percent of her body.
Police say that on Dec 6, two bodyguards and the jealous wife of Svay Sitha, an undersecretary of state at the Council of Ministers, allegedly dumped acid over her body.
“In every hospital it seems there are acid victims. It’s very ugly,” said Win Van Damme, medical coordinator at Medecins Sans Frontieres. “If you want to kill a person, you can just shoot him. If you want to show the world a person is ugly, you use acid.”
Not only can acid cause blindness, a loss of hearing, and extreme pain, often it leaves terrible scars. Faces are erased, noses can be burned off, and extensive damage can be done that will transform former belles into outcasts.
Victims have about a minute to wash the acid away with water before the lion’s share of damage is done, Van Damme said. After the attack, the burned skin is extremely vulnerable to infection and gangrene. And if the skin over a joint is injured and it is allowed to heal incorrectly, limbs can be permanently locked into place, Van Damme said.
“I felt like a chicken with my head cut off,” said Boun Mao, 29, of the moments after he was attacked by a motorbike thief in 1993. Boun Mao went blind. He wanted to die and begged the doctor to kill him.
“It was so terrible, because I didn’t just lose my sight. I lost myself. Everybody loves themselves—to look like a person and you look at your body and you are happy. And then after this you look like a ghost, half ghost, half person and you cannot go outside to see friends because you are shy,” he said.
NGOs and doctors helped Boun Mao build a new life, and now he is a leading advocate for the disabled, and a masseuse at the National Center of Disabled Persons (NCDP) Seeing Hands. But experts say the physical and psychological agony he went through is often exactly what is intended.
Kek Galabru, founder of Licadho, a local human rights group, said the majority of cases involve jealous spouses—usually older wives angry that their husband has decided to take a second wife or is having an affair with a younger woman.
Galabru said stories of women disfiguring a rival were often in the press in pre-war Cambodia. It’s the weapons that have changed.
“Even before 1970, there were problems with wives who were jealous of younger mistresses,” she said. “Sometimes you would hear of them paying somebody to go and beat up or use knives on the mistress and leave scars on her face so the women is no longer beautiful and the husband will no longer want to go back.”
Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, speculated that the practice of disfiguring one’s rival may have been imported from Vietnam, where a high-profile case involving the sister in law of Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem occurred in the 1960s.
Whatever the case, the apparent rise in incidents as shown in the local press and through interviews with doctors has caused alarm.
“It is an act of desperation and emotion and there is no counseling,” Chea Vannath said. “When there is a lack of financial stability, family stability and harmony in society, when there is poverty and crowding, people can see no way out of problems and they act desperate.”
Speaking haltingly through lips that barely move, Lim Reth says she has little sympathy for the psychological machinations that drove her husband to attack her.
“He is brutal,” she said. “I want the law to go after him. I want his parents to look after me, but they don’t come….I will never go back to him.”