Experts are warning that cases of acid attacks are on the rise and are calling for tougher legislation, writes Charles Etukuri.
Parts of 25-year-old Melissa Nansubuga’s nose fell off and her lips melted away as a result of an acid attack she suffered on October 6, last year when two men, one of them suspected to be her husband, tried to force her to drink acid. The acid splashed on her face and body.
Even as doctors at Mulago Hospital struggled to fix her body, you could see that her cornea was also melting away, which threatened her whole eye. The eyelids also started melting off and her breasts started rotting away slowly.
Half of her face had been eaten away by the acid and nobody knew the extent of the damage she had suffered internally. But even with all this pain and with her entire body wrapped in bandages, she was able to fight on and started talking. By merely looking at her, it was hard to tell that her breasts were gone.
Looking at her was traumatising just as was the sight of the other patients who lay near her in the same ward, all victims of acid attacks. Her mother, Percy Nakamya, a food vendor at Nansana trading centre, looked after her, hoping that she would be cured. But even as she sought assurance from the doctors at the facility, all they could say was there was nothing much they could do to stop the rotting.
Doctors at Mulago tried administering antibiotics to help prevent the grafted wounds from becoming infected, but she needed a more powerful antibiotics (clindamycin) which was expensive.
On the Ugandan market, it costs sh255, 000 for three bottles of injection daily and these have to be administered for seven days. It is also painful on administration. Nansubuga could not afford this and eventually, on October 24, she passed on.
Nansubuga joins the growing cases of acid attacks that are becoming common across the country. Statistics from Mulago Hospital and Acid Survivors’ Foundation Uganda (ASFU) indicate that on average, they receive 15-20 cases of severe acid attacks annually. There are also so many mild cases which go unreported. Currently, ASFU has over 400 registered members.
According to the statistics, 55% of the victims are women. According to Dr. Ben Khingi, a surgeon at Mulago Hospital and the founder of ASFU, acid attacks are particularly vicious and a damaging form of premeditated violence where acid is thrown in the face or at the body of an intended victim.
Khingi attributes the rising number of acid cases to revenge, jealousy and hatred arising from relationship conflicts, land/property disputes, business rivalry or even mistaken identity. Khingi says in most of the attacks, acid dissolves the skin, flesh and muscle, causing permanent disfigurement, blindness or even death. Many of the survivors are condemned to a miserable life and become ostracized from the community, suffer depression, abandonment, loss of employment and discrimination. Some who cannot contain it commit suicide.
Hanifa Nakiryowa, an acid victim, told Sunday Vision that she believes there would be fewer attacks if there existed stronger laws to punish the perpetrators of this crime. She accuses her husband of masterminding an acid attack on her in December 2011. Nakiryowa was blinded in her left eye and was left with serious burns to her face and other body parts.
She says it all started when she received a call from her husband telling her to come and pick her two children from his house at the Mugenyi Flats in Makerere University. She had sought sanctuary at her brother’s home, accusing her husband of domestic violence.
“It was dark, around 8:00pm, when I reached the flats and knocked on the door several times. As I waited, I saw a man in the corridor walk towards me. I thought he was one of the guards. As he walked past me, I greeted him. He continued to a cupboard near me and bent down. I could hear him unwrap something. On getting up, he poured acid straight into my face,” she says.
“In shock and pain, I called out my husband’s name, but he never came to my aid. The neighbours must have heard my screams. They ran to my rescue. When my husband finally opened the door, my baby naturally ran to me. Unfortunately, he fell into acid that had spilled on the floor and sustained some burns,” she adds.
The case was reported to Wandegeya Police Station and the key suspect was arrested, but later given Police bond and the file disappeared. When she left the hospital, she reopened the file at the Central Police Station. The file was transferred to Kawempe, where it remained idle. She then filed a complaint with the Directorate of Public Prosecutions, but nothing much was done. She resorted to the media and eventually the file was sanctioned.
“The suspect pleaded not guilty and when his lawyer requested for bail, prosecution agreed yet the prosecutor had not even had time to look at my face, or even speak to me. At this point, I was frustrated and angry seeing that I was being denied justice. I decided to tell the presiding magistrate that I was withdrawing henceforth from the case”.
For Adidas Bandiho, the attacker was a former friend who had allegedly been trying to seduce Bandiho’s wife. When the woman reported to her husband, the two became rivals.
On the night of the attack, Bandiho was returning from work when he noticed someone hiding behind a tree near his home. Suddenly, the attacker jumped from his hiding place and poured acid on him. He realised he had been attacked with acid when he experienced a burning sensation all over his body. He was rushed to a local hospital and later transferred to Mulago, where he spent 10 months. He sustained severe injuries on the head, face, neck, chest and arms.
ASFU intervened to ensure Bandiho accessed medical care, counselling and welfare support during his hospital stay. Although Bandiho is now completely blind and severely disfigured, his attacker was never jailed. He insists he was able to identify the attacker but the Police maintain they did not have enough evidence to effect an arrest.
For Florence Nalubega, 40, the attacker was her estranged husband. She had endured a physically abusive marriage, prompting her to leave with her six children. She was fortunate enough to find a job as a secretary for a high government official. However, when Nalubega’s husband learnt of her progress, he became jealous and threatened to kill her.
On the day of the attack, in November 1993, Nalubega was up before dawn to prepare for her graduation. But before she could set off, her youngest son wanted to go to the latrine outside the house and she decided to escort him.
As they stepped outside, they heard some movements in the dark. When Nalubega flashed the torch she was horrified to see her ex-husband holding a plastic mug and a knife. Before she could raise an alarm, he tossed the acid in her face and fled. Nalubega was rushed to hospital as she had sustained severe burns on her body.
As a result of the attack, Nalubega became blind in both eyes, lost both earlobes and had to undergo 16 skin grafting surgeries. Nalubega’s husband was eventually arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He is now a free man having served his sentence.
The dilemma of acid victims
Acid burns leave permanent emotional, psychological and physical pain to both the direct and indirect victims.
“I cannot breathe properly at night since that incident happened. I have to use nasal tubes to keep my nostrils open for breathing since my nose was shrunk by the acid. I see with only one eye and my skin is fragile. But life has to go on,” Nakiryowa says. She is still undergoing a series of reconstructive surgeries to try and correct the damage on her face.
A doctor's mission to change the return
In 2003, Dr. Ben Khingi, a surgeon at Mulago Hospital, formed the ASFU to cater for the needs of acid victims. “I saw their extraordinary pain and suffering. Some were spending up to two years or even more undergoing treatment and it was costly for them,” he says.
The trauma caused to survivors of acid violence required more than medical intervention. Dr. Khingi, therefore, initiated a mutual support group for survivors, which later became Acid Survivors’ Foundation Uganda (ASFU).
ASFU advocates an acid violence-free country and its mission is to support the reintegration of acid violence survivors into society through rehabilitation, legal aid and advocacy.
Dr. Khingi says today, they support acid survivors to access the best available medical care during the time of recovery by meeting the cost of drugs, bandages and medical reviews for disadvantaged survivors. For survivors who are able to meet some of the expenses, there is a cost sharing arrangement in place.
ASFU also encourages the formation of support groups which play an important role in the survivors’ recovery since it allows them to draw strength and encouragement from their peers. Currently, acid survivors are involved in support groups of 10-12 members that meet on a quarterly basis to share common concerns, challenges and coping techniques.
It has also provided survivors with opportunities to acquire skills to engage in income-generating activities. Areas of training include small business management, crafts/tailoring, rehabilitative training for the blind and computer studies. In order to achieve this, ASFU has partnered with vocational schools to provide training for survivors.
The foundation is also offering small loans as start-up capital to their members to engage in income generating activities.