Acid Attacks on the Rise as Revenge Crimes in Uganda

 

Article Highlights

KAMPALA, UGANDA — “I still remember it like it was yesterday,” says Ritah Ssanyu, 24. “I heard loud footsteps behind me. He caught up with me, grabbed my arms and shouted, ‘Gwe! You!’”

 

“Then, he turned around and poured something on my face.”

 

When her face began to burn, she realized it was acid. 

 

“I screamed in pain. Acid burns immediately. It is like when you light a piece of paper and how fast the flames consume it. That is how the acid works. It moves inside, consuming you.”

 

Ssanyu is among a growing number of Ugandan women affected by these gruesome attacks. A member of the Acid Survivors Foundation of Uganda, ASFU, she now works as a counselor for other survivors. Statistics from ASFU indicate that 370 cases of acid attacks have been reported in Uganda since the foundation was founded in 2003. A recent spate of acid attacks in the United States in September has focused new international attention on the issue.

 

According to research from the United Nations, acid attacks are most commonly used as revenge crimes. Women account for 90 percent of all acid attack victims and relationship problems remain the primary reasons for the attacks. In Uganda, just one organization is in place to help victims pay for medical treatment, receive counseling and job training after their attacks. But discrimination and a lack of legal support to punish acid attackers have left hundreds of victims in Uganda without justice. Advocates are currently lobbying for increased police attention and new policies to monitor the sale of acids commonly used in attacks. Sulfuric and nitric acids are most commonly used because they are easy to get and sale and use is unregulated.

 

With the weapons easy to acquire and punishments nonexsistent, acid attacks are on the rise here. From March to May, ASFU recorded 15 new acid attacks in Uganda.

The Attack: Before and After

Like many acid attack victims, Ssanyu knew her attacker. “It was a guy I knew from high school,” she says. “He had wanted to date me and I turned down his advances. He had promised to do something that we both would regret.”

 

When she ran into him just a year out of high school on the evening of May 26, 2006 on her way home from a class at the Uganda Institute of Communication and Information Technology, where she was a first year student, she says he was rude and acted strangely.

 

“I asked him what he was doing [there] and he rudely responded that I thought I owned the whole of Uganda,” she recalls. “There was another person lurking, but at that time I thought nothing of his presence.”

 

She turned to walk down the dirt path to her house. “It all happened so fast,” she says. “I only realized it was acid when I felt the burning. People heard my screams and came out. Someone poured water on my face.”

 

After Ssanyu’s attack, she was taken to Mulago Hospital, where she stayed for five weeks.

 

At first, doctors thought she was blind, but after two weeks her right eye opened and then her left. After skin grafts and an operation on her eye, she was discharged and moved in with her aunt in Entebbe, some 20 miles away from her home in Kampala. She underwent four more operations over the course of the next year.

 

Ssanyu returned to school two years later, in 2008, determined to get her life back. Though her face remains badly scarred, she was determined to rebuild her life and her self-esteem.

 

“The first day of school was so hard,” she says. “People were staring at me. I had to sit alone. It was their first time to see a survivor of an acid attack. At the end of the first day, I was not sure I would go back. But my aunt encouraged me. She told me not to give up and to move on.”

 

Eventually Ssanyu found a small group of friends. At the start of the next term she ran for guild secretary and won with the support of her classmates.

One Organization Provides Relief Services; Legal Action Remains Weak

The Acid Survivors Foundation of Uganda offers psychosocial, legal and entrepreneurial support to acid attack victims. Founded in 2003 by Dr. Ben Khingi, then a burn specialist at Mulago Hospital, ASFU is one of only a handful of organizations specializing in acid attacks in the world, so the scope of their services is broad.

 

“In cases where the patient is unable to afford transportation and medical costs, ASFU organizes for them,” says Hilda Munaba, a psychosocial counselor with ASFU. “[We] support survivors from the moment we learn about the attack.”

 

While psychological services come later, the most pressing need is often money to pay for the expensive treatments and medications victims need. Munaba says ASFU works with a local pharmacy to provide low cost painkillers. They also give patients pressure garments (one long sleeved pressure vest cost $126 USD), nutritional food and ensure they undergo surgery.

 

Post-surgery, ASFU holds community meetings with local leaders, churches and families to help reintegrate acid attack survivors into their communities. Munaba says the organization has also recently begun to link survivors to skills training groups who can help them start income generating projects.

 

Despite the multi-faceted nature of the organization, one area remains weak – their ability to work with law enforcement to arrest the perpetrators of acid attacks.

 

Doreen Ayebare, a legal advisor with ASFU, confirmed that only 60 cases, of the nearly 400 reported, are being investigated. Eight cases are pending before a local judge, more than 40 are being investigated by local police and 10 cases were concluded without any charges being filed. Formal charges were never brought in the remaining 300-plus cases.

 

Ssanyu’s case is one of the 10 cases, where charges were dropped.

 

Ssanyu gave police the identity of her attacker and he was picked up a few weeks after the attack. But with no other witnesses, police released him saying the evidence was circumstantial.

 

“The police dismissed the evidence as too circumstantial and [he] has never been taken to court,” she says. She says a cousin of the attacker who visited her in the hospital confirmed who was behind the attack, but declined to make a formal statement when approached by police. When Ssanyu tried to follow up on her case, she was told that the officer handling it had been transferred. A week later, she was told her file was lost.  Police did not respond to repeated inquiries for comment.

 

AFSU is currently lobbying local police to employ special investigators for all acid attack cases.

 

Ayebare says corruption is a big problem on this issue. “There is a lot of corruption. Witnesses fail to turn up to testify and the evidence is always circumstantial. It is not easy to get evidence [for crimes] committed in dark, lonely places,” she says.

Sale of Acids Unregulated in Uganda

Most acid attackers use sulfuric or nitric acid, both can eat through human skin, muscle and even bone.

 

ASFU research in 2009 revealed that Uganda has no system in place to regulate the sale or use of any type of acid. Local businesses that sell sulfuric acid – common in car batteries – do not need a special license and no monitoring system is in place to control the sale or use of other chemicals.

 

“The proliferation of acid attacks is fuelled by the fact that there are no monitoring mechanisms in place to regulate the sale of dangerous substances,” says Ayebare. “The Penal Code treats chemicals as a weapon and one gets life imprisonment for that, however this is not implemented.”

 

Ayebare is leading AFSU’s effort to control the sale and use of chemicals. “The main advocacy component is looking at restriction of chemicals,” she says.