Imagine the pain of someone pressing burning steel to your face or body. Chiev Chenda experienced such suffering when a woman poured litres of nitric acid on her.
“Before I used to see, look after and play with my children, but now I can’t since I’ve become blind,” she said, trying to recall in a recent interview what happened to her last month when she was attacked near her house in the outskirt of Phnom Penh.
Chiev Chenda is just one of hundreds of other acid attack survivors in Cambodia, victims of a crime that observers say is increasing.
The Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity supports roughly 200 survivors of acid burns since 2006.
Acid Survivors Director James Gollogly said most victims are women, who account for 60 percent, while men and children make up 35 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
“The motivations [of acid attacks] are many different types,” Gollogly said. “The classic one is revenge for some young women who are the mistresses of some older guys, and his wife either pours acid on them herself or gets someone to do it.”
According to a Licadho’s 2003 “Living in the Shadows,” a report on acid attacks in Cambodia, the perpetrator usually does not want to kill the victim but wants to destroy her face, to make the victim look like a monster so that nobody will ever love her.
The acids most frequently used in the attacks are sulfuric or nitric. These acids can melt human flesh and even bones, causing excruciating pain and terror and leaving victims mutilated and scarred for life.
Ung Bunthan, who compiled the Licadho report and has been monitoring acid attacks in Cambodia since 1999, said attack survivors not only suffer physically but they also have to live in a state of being worse than death.
“Some acid attack victims become blind; some lose their nose, ears and even skull,” he said, adding that some victims confine themselves at home as a result of shame, or to avoid social discrimination.
“They live neither as a human nor as a ghost,” he said.
Licadho recorded 44 cases of acid attacks between 1999 and 2003, but the recent record shows 114 new cases for the past five years, according to Ung Bunthan.
But the actual number of acid attack cases may be higher, as some cases go unreported, he said.
“The increase in acid attacks may result from the police’s incapability to arrest perpetrators,” Ung Bunthan said. “So when a perpetrator can walk free after committing an acid attack, he can still do the same with other victims later.”
Reached by phone, Chief of Penal Police Maj. Gen. Mok Chito did not respond to questions about acid attacks.
But Interior Ministry Secretary of State Chou Bun Eng said the authorities can work on the issue only with court and victim cooperation.
“To arrest someone, we have to work with a prosecutor to have an arrest warrant first, and then we also need the victim’s complaint,” she said.
Centre for Social Development Executive Director Seng Theary, however, said the authorities still fear the rich and the powerful in their implementation of the law.
“We can all see that the role of police is still limited,” she said. “Most of the time, they only punish the poor and the weak, but they dare not do the same with the rich and the powerful. This is unjust.”
Under the Cambodian law, a perpetrator can face up to 10 years in jail and a life sentence if the acid attack victim dies or becomes disabled.
An acid attack on a karaoke singer Tat Marina in December 1999, allegedly by the wife of a a senior government official, attracted a lot of publicity, but the alleged perpetrator and accomplices have never been arrested and brought to justice.
Similarly, the woman who attacked Chiev Chenda remains at large.
“It should never have happened to me,” the 34-year-old mother of three said, tears streaking down her badly scared face. “I am really suffering.”