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Cambodia's acid attack victims appeal for justice

By Guy Delauney
BBC News, Phnom Penh

Victims of acid attacks in the hospital ward in Phnom Penh
Acid attacks are becoming more and more common in Cambodia

Som Bunnarith adjusts his wrap-around sunglasses, turns on the Casio and gives the keys an experimental tinkle.

Satisfied that everything is working as it should, he fires up the drum machine and, as his hands move across the instrument, he starts to croon in an easy-on-the-ear tenor.

Yet Bunnarith is not a professional musician. He only took up keyboards and singing as therapy after what he calls "the incident".

It seems an innocuous word for such an horrific and life-changing event. Bunnarith's wife believed that he had been having an affair with another woman; in a fit of jealousy she threw acid over her husband.

Feeling his skin burning, Bunnarith ran to a nearby river to try to wash off the acid. But it was too late for his eyes; when he emerged from the water he realised that he was blind.

That was four years ago. Only now, thanks to music and help from CASC, the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, has Bunnarith started to come to terms with what happened to him.

Keo Srey Vy describes how CASC helped her recover from an acid attack

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the future looked bleak.

"I felt that I had lost everything; I did not want to live any more," he says. "Because I was blind I stayed at home, and nobody took care of me. My wife and children went out to work and study - but I felt like I was in prison."

Before the attack, Bunnarith had worked in marketing for a soft drinks company. He enjoyed a decent salary and his children went to good schools.

But the terrible scars on his face and body, along with his blindness, brought his career to an end. In a society which places great emphasis on "face", Bunnarith's no longer fitted.

Acid attack survivors frequently suffer in this way. Their injuries are compounded by discrimination and stigmatisation - particularly for women.

Until recently acid attacks typically involved aggrieved wives attacking their husband's mistresses, or vice versa. That meant many victims would have to endure comments about their moral conduct, and whether they were the authors of their own misfortune.

But over the past few months, the nature - and number - of attacks has changed. The 11 incidents reported in the first two months of 2010 almost equalled the total for the whole of the previous year.

And where Bunnarith used to stand out as a rare male at survivors' meetings, an increasing number of men have joined him.

"It has become a lot more democratic," says Jim Gollogly, a British-born doctor who founded CASC. "Some husbands have poured acid over their wives; some wives have poured acid over their husbands."

"And we have two young girls here who were clearly not in any love triangle - but their mother was involved in a business dispute."

No justice

The consequences are horrific.

Dr Gollogly is brisk and businesslike as he conducts his rounds in a cramped ward at the Children's Surgical Centre in Phnom Penh, one of the few places in Cambodia which is equipped to treat acid burns.

But a first-time visitor would wince at the array of twisted skin, melted eyes and gnarled limbs which the patients are waiting to have treated.

Surgery underway at the hospital in Cambodia
Acid attacks leave the victims in need of long-term medical care

Dr Gollogly thinks that a relatively simple measure would prevent many future acid attacks from taking place.

"What they have to do here is control the sale of acid," he says. "Here you buy a car battery in the market, and the seller has to put acid in it. So the acid is there and it is very cheap. Although there are laws governing it, they do not seem to be enforced."

The recent spate of incidents has at least prompted the government to review the laws which cover acid attacks. It is proposing some restrictions on the sale of acid, as well as stronger penalties for those who carry out attacks.

Such preventative action would be too late to help people like Bunnarith.

The best he can hope for is a better quality of life; the music lessons he has been getting, courtesy of CASC, may eventually allow him to become a professional performer and earn an income once again.

CASC has also constructed a centre on the outskirts of Phnom Penh where it is helping survivors with physical therapy and vocational training. But for many of them, a sense of injustice is as deeply ingrained as their scars.

Thong Kham describes herself as the victim of Cambodia's first acid attack, in 1990. Sitting at a shady table in the garden of the CASC centre, she fights back the tears to get her message across.

"I do not think the courts have seriously punished the perpetrators," she says. "That is why the number of acid attacks has increased."

"The authorities should arrest and punish the perpetrators - following the model of other countries. The government should implement the law."



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