Mat Aphimas’ arms are webbed together from her shoulders to her forearms with shiny scar tissue. Upon meeting guests she timidly hides beneath a small yellow towel wrapped around her forehead. And beneath her dusty shawl, the traits that make up a human face – ears, mouth, nose and eyes – are barely recognizable. Her face has literally melted away.
Ms Aphimas is the victim of an acid attack that occurred 10 years ago when her husband’s former wife became jealous and doused her with acid while she slept.
Lodged inside a stilted shack in a poverty-stricken village in Kompong Cham’s Tbong Khmum district, her residence is surrounded by thousands of hectares of rubber plantations-an agricultural fixture in Kompong Cham province that may well have contributed to her being attacked.
According to officials at the Cambodia Acid Survivors Charity in Phnom Penh, many of the province’s poorer farmers are using acid – a large proportion of which is highly corrosive – to quicken the hardening process of the rubber resin they drain from the countless rows of trees every day. This ultimately allows these small-scale rubber farmers to sell their produce at a quicker rate.
Observers say that there is a direct link between rubber farmers’ easy access to acid in Kompong Cham and the extreme number of attacks in the province.
Nearly 40 percent of the 201 registered acid survivors that the Cambodia Acid Survivors Charity has cared for since March 2006 are residents in Kompong Cham province. Some of those treated admittedly fell victim to acid before this date.
The charity says that 33 of its registered members from Kompong Cham are men, 28 are women and a surprising 17 are children.
“The province is surrounded by rubber plantations and a lot of people work on these plantations,” said Chhun Sophea, program manager at CASC. “They are bound to have acid.”
Indeed, the numbers compiled by CASC are conservative, with many acid attacks going unreported. In a recent visit to seven villages in the Memot, Ponhea Krek and Tboung Khmum districts, there was at least one acid attack victim in each village, many of whom had not reported the incident to the police or had any professional medical treatment to heal their horrific wounds.
Victims of acid crimes are often stigmatized and judged by their communities. A culture of impunity and the fear of retaliation also mean many victims never find the courage to complain to the authorities.
In April, during the celebrations of the Khmer New Year, Ms Aphimas said her village had witnessed the attack of a 21-year-old man who was doused with 5 liters of acid by his friend for reasons of jealousy.
“He did it while he was asleep,” she said. “Most of his flesh just fell off his body. Even his penis.” Ten days later the boy died.
The gravity of the wounds as well as the lack of public awareness concerning the frequency of these attacks in the province is drawing calls from those caring for victims for the government to regulate the widespread selling of acid.
“Acid should not be available to the general public,” Ms Sophea said. “There should be a registration system only providing acid to those using it for official reasons.” She added that her charity was currently in contact with the Ministry of Interior to step up enforcement in acid attack cases.
Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior, said that his ministry had no immediate plans to introduce a registration system for those who want to buy acid.
“If the sellers have to register then the buyer would have to do the same thing,” he said. “It would be hard and might not work.”
In numerous villages and towns scattered across Kompong Cham province, buckets of acid sit, often unnoticed, outside garages and motor repair shops. Anyone can buy it for the modest sum of 2,000 riel, or 50 cents per liter.
“No license is needed for selling the acid either,” said Vouch Lang, the owner of a battery-selling shop in Ponhea Krek district’s Korng Kang commune. He added that a large proportion of her acid-buying clients worked on rubber plantations.
After being doused with such cheap acid, Ms Aphimas’ wounds took a total of six years to heal with the help of a dedicated French doctor working at Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh, but she is no longer able to use her arms. She is also completely marginalized from society due to the hideousness of her facial features. However, she believes her life was saved by the free medical care she received at Calmette Hospital.
Yi Sysa, 24, a mother living in Tboung Khmum district’s Sra Lop commune, was not so fortuitous. After her husband splashed acid over her in 2007 for fear that she would divorce him, she was so poor that she could only afford a trip to the nearest referral hospital.
“I didn’t take a shower for two years,” she said, holding her 5-year-old daughter close to her side. “I had such small amounts of money that I took advice from my neighbor, who told me to smear white buffalo manure over my wounds so they would heal.”
One and a half years later, she had raised enough money to receive treatment at Kompong Cham provincial hospital, where she had plastic surgery to repair her left eyelid. Today she lives in constant fear that her enraged husband will come back and kill her. And with no desire to report the case to the police, she says such violence remains a distinct possibility.
According to officials at CASC, one of the most worrying issues lies in the fact that many acid attacks are either never reported to the police or, once reported, never solved.
Kompong Cham provincial police chief Nuon Samin said by telephone Tuesday that acid attacks were criminal cases and the police are working hard to catch all perpetrators.
However, the provincial police office currently only has one case on record. And before that, Mr Samin said, there were no others.
“We are checking that acid is not illegally imported along the border [with Vietnam],” he added.
Officials at the Memot district police department said they had no acid attack cases currently on record and no cases were being investigated or had been solved in recent years. Yet, Memot’s referral hospital said they had received approximately 10 cases since 2000.
Moreover, Seang Chheng, a nurse at the hospital said they only treated victims who had relatively minor injuries.
“The more serious cases go to the provincial hospital or Phnom Penh,” he said.
The truth of the matter, however, is that the actual number of cases in the region is absolutely unknown. Many of the victims interviewed for this article said they had received no medical treatment and had never heard of the assistance provided by CASC, which gives free medical care and attempts to reintegrate victims back into society by training them in the arts and manual jobs such as gardening.
Sem Kea, 43, is a classic example of one of Kompong Cham’s acid attack victims, a man whose life has been utterly devastated by his dramatic wounds and whose story has remained hidden amongst the province’s dense rubber plantations for years.
Seven years ago his wife stole some acid from a local plantation in Memot’s Dar commune and attacked him, apparently for drinking too much alcohol. Mr Kea has been left a hobbling mess, his upper chest fused to the underside of his chin. He spends his days sprawled in a haggard hammock chain-smoking cigarettes. He received no medical treatment for his wounds because he was simply too poor.
Mr Kea, who still lives with his wife, says that landowners are starting to lock the acid away when it is not being used due to the number of casualties noticed in the area.
“It’s still not completely healed,” he said of his wounds as he hobbled awkwardly over to spark up another cigarette. “My skin is so tight I can’t move my neck, and when I try to do some work, I have difficulty in breathing.”
Ork Reth, 44, a worker on a rubber plantation in Dar commune is also scarred for life after an his mother’s cousin, angry about the amount she had received in inheritance from her grandparents, doused his entire family in acid back in 1983. His father died five years later due to recurrent skin infections. His mother and brother live on in the village.
His life has been both physically and mentally shaped by acid. Every time he leaves the house he feels that people judge him “as a bad person.” And he loathes the stigma that surrounds acid victims. Many are quick to assume the victim had done something to deserve his or her wounds.
Figures compiled by CASC show that 42 percent of their registered acid victims have been maimed due to an accident in Kompong Cham. Only 6 percent were due to extra-marital affairs, a commonly assumed motive.
Just half a kilometer from Mr Reth in the same village, Lim Kimsoeun, whose face is singed almost black on one side, says that most of the acid is brought into Cambodia over the border from Vietnam. His neighbor with whom he had regular disagreements over what he says were “childish issues,” attacked him five years ago. The neighbor threw a plate of acid in his face and proceeded to flee the village.
Today, like Mr Kimsoeun’s self-esteem, his attacker’s house lies disassembled, as nature engulfs what used to be the main support timbers.
“People who buy acid should be registered so we can trace who commits these crimes,” Mr Kimsoeun said, looking hazily at the grassy patch of earth where his attacker used to live.
With Kompong Cham acting as an epicenter for acid attacks in Cambodia, Ms Sophea, the program manager at CASC, says that public awareness is essential. If not, “the devastation” taking place in the region will simply continue, she says.
And Ms Aphimas agrees. Speaking through her yellow towel she cast a knowledgeable analysis of the situation in her home province. “The availability of acid means it has become a social phenomenon for revenge.” she said.