Corroding lives

Even hours before the incident, Zahid’s (name changed) thoughts had been centered on the routine, mundane issues of his life. He had only stepped out of his house when something was spattered on the left side of his face, and the next thing he knew he was writhing around on the ground, screaming in agony and excruciating pain.

Now he is in a hospital, awaiting several surgeries, trying to come to terms with the fact that he too was yet another victim of a horrendous acid attack. His facial features have been changed drastically from one side.

There is a lot of work to be done through plastic surgery; his lower lip has melted, his nose has been reduced to only nostrils, and his eye on the affected side is red and watery, left without much sight. He cannot close that eye while sleeping and even his ear lobe has melted.

When he had touched his face at the time of the attack the skin of his hands too was affected, shriveling up in blotchy patches. Rendered almost faceless, the man does not know what to do.

“I never knew how much someone’s life could flip over in a matter of seconds,” he lisps as it is difficult for him to talk. “It was an assault, I know. This acid was not an accident it was directly flung onto me from the side. Even so, I have no idea who could do such a thing; I have no enmity with anyone.”

While he knows it was deliberate, he is still unsure that it was meant for him. It might be an accident, he says; he could have been mistaken for someone else.

ON THE RISE: In the last couple of years, about 1,100 reported cases of acid have come to the forefront, while many others go unreported. The instances of acid throwing have become so much of a trend in the country that the radius of reasons have extended to lengths never thought of before. Revenge, family feuds, honour issues, enmity over property or business, are some of them. But much more common is something as trivial as spontaneous anger. The victims are mostly women, but even men like Zahid have been attacked, proving no one is really safe.

The main reason lies in the unlimited supply and unchecked sale of acid. There is no monitoring and no checking. There are no licenses and absolutely no track or trail of those involved in buying or selling the dangerous liquid.

Prof Dr Farid Ahmed Khan, head of Plastic Surgery at the Mayo Hospital burns ward, where Zahid is admitted, says during 2011 about 237 acid attack cases have come in. Most of these are homicidal in nature, he says, where eight out 10 victims are women. The rest are divided into two other categories: suicidal and accidental, where accidental incidences are relatively higher.

A victim usually lands up in hospital, first thing after an attack, so doctors see them in the worst possible condition. Dr Fareed says cases are sometimes terrible and require about 10 different surgeries only in order to get the person back in proper shape. The cosmetic part does not even count at this stage.

“Availability of acid should definitely be restricted,” he says. “We see all kinds of burn cases here and we know how bad an acid burn can be. To think that people actually throw acid on some one knowingly is a horrible thought. In any case the acid should be at least labeled properly in correct bottles with the level of concentration written on it.”

He recounts an instance where a man burnt himself while performing ablution, because someone had left a water container with acid in it. He says many times acid is kept in mineral water bottles, easily accessible by anyone, even children.

“We receive one acid victim every two days,” he says. “It shows a despicable and growing trend.”

While Dr Fareed counts male chauvinism, spontaneous retaliation and a low conviction rate among the primary reasons of acid cases on the rise, criminologist Dr Khaleel Ahmed says that along with these, the one major reason of women being victims of acid attacks is that they are objectified. “When a person is treated like an object, there are ownership issues, and when that feeling arises, there is a thought pattern which goes along the trail of ‘if I can’t get her then no one else should either.’ This kind of mentality leads to a desire for disfigurement.”

In fact, he says, now male victims are on the rise too.

“Though the reasons for acid throwing are sociological in nature, the cause of the rising cases is also related to a very physical problem: that of easy access to acid,” he says. “Acid attacks are a mindset which must be changed through education. But there is another side; blocking the sale of acid to any ordinary person.”

Dr Khaleel says the Acid Prevention law passed recently in the National Assembly was a seriously needed legislation, but it took too long to bring it about. “In any case, implementation is what is needed more than laws themselves. We do not have any legislative framework that decides that acid should not be sold to every third person on the street. We have no idea who bought acid and why. Almost anyone can sell acid, without needing a license for this. This is a society full of contradictions; we will push for sleeping pills not to be sold over the counter, but when acid, which is deadlier, is being sold over the counter, everyone remains silent.”

Lawyer Javed Iqbal Raja is of the view that the curbs on acid sale will not make a difference. Instead, acid cases should be taken as terrorist acts which will ensure an immediate convictions rate rather than letting the case hang for so long. “Knives and guns are sold too, it just depends on how you use them.”

But Dr Khaleel disagrees.

“The weapon (acid) has already dissolved,” he says. “With knives and guns, the weapon can still be recovered as forensic evidence. Even if it is absent from location, we can mark it as that and try to find it and recover it. But how can acid be recovered? And because it cannot be, it becomes all the more difficult to trace the person who did it. There are no fingerprints, no other DNA sample we can look for.”

He suggests that there should be acid sale licenses with strict criteria.

“Everyone should not easily be given a license. There should be a background check, and that person’s details should be with the related department. A buyer should declare where he is from, why he needs the acid and provide his personal details and CNIC copy to the seller. And if it is a factory that needs acid on regular basis, they should do it through the same person each time.”

Aurat Foundation’s Punjab regional director Mumtaz Mughal says most of the women victims of such attacks come from middle and lower class backgrounds.

“It (acid sale) should fall under excise department which controls chemicals, but does not have acid on their list,” she says.

“The whole problem is that acid legally does not fall under poisonous or dangerous chemicals. Once it is taken as that, there would be less legal issues to face in these cases. We are pressuring excise department into taking this chemical under its protection.”

Meanwhile, Dr Khaleel concurs that conviction rates could rise and victims be given justice if acid attacks were regarded as terrorist acts. “Under the definition of terrorism, this is an act which is carried out by person/s to intimidate a segment of society in order to get their interest safeguarded. A crime against a hapless person is a crime against the state, and this is technically a terrorist activity.”

— PUBLISHED APR 28, 2012 01:07AM


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