Her face and body seared by tight, ribbed scars, Mean Sokroeun carries a worn photograph of herself when she was whole, to remind others of what she looked like before the corrosive streams of battery acid ate through her skin, muscle and bone.
Her eyes consumed in their sockets by store-bought sulfuric acid thrown at her a decade ago by her husband’s jealous ex-wife, the blind, disfigured woman said she has often been engulfed by thoughts of suicide since the attack.
“But here,” she said Friday, gesturing with her hand toward the 22 fellow acid attack victims sitting around her, “I get encouragement that I can go on.”
Nodding nearby is Thang Kham, 56, who was unintentionally scorched in 1990 in a Kandal province market when unknown assailants hurled acid at the unofficial “second” wife of a businessman, who was standing near her.
“We have all wanted to kill ourselves,” Thang Kham said. “But here we can meet other people who have gone through the same thing and learn how to live. We are like brothers and sisters.”
Once a month in a small conference room at Rose Charities—a NGO that provides rehabilitation surgery and counseling for the disabled—acid attack victims meet to share their stories of surviving through often continuous physical and psychological pain.
Kanyapak Reinvetch, administrator and chief financial officer of the Children’s Surgical Center of Rose Charities, said she has seen dramatic changes in the participants of the monthly group-therapy sessions since they started two years ago.
“When it first began there was a lot of crying and people didn’t want to talk,” she said. “But now, they speak openly about their experiences, and also share jokes and talk to each other about normal things. It’s a community and a break from isolation.”
The monthly meetings give a chance for the victims of acid attacks—who, observers say, are far too often perceived in Cambodian society as deserving victims of lovers’ quarrels turned savage—to develop friendships and learn about physical therapy and surgery options for their injuries.
Some, like six-year-old Hoeun Sokkea, have longer paths to rehabilitation than others. The girl’s tiny frame is mapped with twisting scars left by sulfuric acid that her mother tragically poured over her when she mistook a bottle of battery acid that her husband bought for his motorbike for bathing water.
“My wife just got confused,” said Hem Van, 35, smiling sadly while holding his fragile-looking daughter on his lap. “[My daughter] is slowly getting better. She can move now.”
Jason Barber of the local rights group Licadho said that sulfuric acid, which is used in car and motorcycle batteries, and nitric acid, used by goldsmiths to purify gold and separate it from metals, is still easily obtainable in Phnom Penh markets, even though the municipality imposed restrictions on acid sellers in 2000 in an effort to stop the attacks.
The municipal directive demanded that acid sellers be licensed by the Ministry of Industry, produce invoices and only put the corrosive fluid into customers’ battery cells, not into bottles. Nitric acid buyers have to prove they have a professional use for it.
“But it appears that it’s still an easily obtained and easily affordable weapon,” Barber said. “The incidence of acid attacks has been fairly steady over the past few years.”
The majority of attacks, which average about 20 a year nationwide, do seem to be related to “relationship problems, but we’ve seen motives such as business disputes and domestic violence,” Barber said, adding that the messy attacks often have multiple, unintended victims.
Mu Sochua, the former minister of women’s affairs and now opposition party member who played a leading role in getting the Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of Victims passed recently, said she had worked hard to include victims of acid attacks in the legislation, which had been under debate in various incarnations for years.
“Unfortunately, it was taken out in the final version of the law. I defended it very strongly, because it’s a very grave, serious crime and must be effectively deterred by a special article,” Mu Sochua said.
“Acid attacks are a sign of societal breakdown and a sign of the culture of impunity because the attacks are rarely prosecuted,” she said. “These are people who are shunned from social life and from any kind of human dignity. There is a lack of commitment by the government toward the victims of these crimes.”
A new NGO dubbed Acid Survivor Foundation Cambodia, which Rose Charities plans to launch and which would be based on a similar effort in Bangladesh, where acid attacks have been a common crime for years, will work to stem the problem in Cambodia and rehabilitate the victims, including providing them with jobs they can do at home, said Kanyapak Reinvetch.
“I want to see that public awareness is raised so people understand that it’s not a way to make revenge,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul)