Unforgiving scar: 2014, a year of horrific acid attacks

Ruqaiyya cannot close one of her eyes at all, even during sleep. She spends her night fighting the agonising pain.
Published December 29, 2014

Acid, found easily and cheaply across Pakistan has been used a weapon to exact 'revenge' in domestic violence cases. The victims are often left with no legal recourse and suffer severe psychological trauma as well facing social stigma which comes with disfigurement.

By Yumna Rafi

Ruqaiyya cannot close one of her eyes at all, even during sleep. She spends her night fighting the agonising pain, trying in vain to rest. Only after sleep injections does she manage to rest, with one eye still wide open.

Her children cling onto her every night; while they sleep she struggles to forget the trauma that they had all gone through together. Her blinded eye stays wide open, as if unable to shut out the horror that it had witnessed.

On a similar night two and half years ago, Ruqaiyya was fast asleep with her children when her husband threw a mug filled with acid on her. The peacefully resting mother and children all woke up to scalding pain.

It was an 'indescribable agony', the children screamed and cried for their mother. But their cries for help were fell on deaf ears. Disorientated and shocked, the children could only see their father with their two uncles, holding a now empty mug while their mother Ruqaiyya, was burnt beyond recognition.

“I could not stop screaming when it happened. I have no recollection of what followed for the next six months except feeling blinding, excruciating pain all over my body. But what made it worse was when I got to know my children had suffered from burns too,” she said while holding onto her 11-year-old son.

“My children were hospitalised, the youngest one was only two-years-old at that time.”

Ruqaiyya has four sons, three of whom suffered burns on their bodies from the attack. While Ruqaiyya’s face was completely disfigured, her children had burns on the back, neck and stomach.

“I cannot thank God enough for saving their faces, I would not have been able to bear it,” she said.

A family ruined

Ruqaiyya’s husband was a “jobless gambler”, it was an odd match from the beginning.

He had received very little education and set in his habits from a very young age. Ruqaiyya, on the other hand, had passed her matriculation exams and aspired to further continue her studies. But she had no control over her life.

“My father was not alive so my relatives arranged the marriage; I don’t know why they did this to me. Why did they marry me off to someone without cross checking?” said the 26-year old Ruqaiyya.

The marriage produced four children and as the family grew so did the weight of responsibility on Ruqaiyya’s shoulders. She gave private lessons to children in her neighbourhood in North Nazimabad but the money was not sufficient for a family of six. Soon the father pressurised his eldest son Waqqas, 7-years-old then, to start working.

“Waqqas was forced to quit school after only a year. His father made him work in the graveyard to earn extra money for the family,” she said.

“He himself did nothing except for putting all our money up for gambling. He ruined his own son’s life.”

Fearing that her husband would make the other children work as well, Ruqaiyya decided to save up money to send her children to school. She started pooling in a portion of her salary to a ‘committee’ every month, which is a traditional way of saving still practiced in Pakistan.

She had never imagined, though, that the resolve to save her children’s future would ultimately destroy their lives.

“He asked me for the money that I had given to the committee. I told him the committee has their rules and I would get it back after a period of time but he thought I was lying,” she said while recalling the breaking point of their relationship.

“He left home for two days and on the third day, he came back at night but didn’t sleep. I inquired if he was okay and he told me to ‘just sleep’. I had no idea of his intentions.”

The attack left her blind in one eye while she also lost hearing in her left ear. After receiving initial treatment, Ruqaiyya was admitted to the Civil Hospital Burns Centre for almost a year.

When she gained strength to face the world again, she approached the police to get justice. She was, however, only met with apathy and a society where domestic violence is still considered a private matter. She also received threatening phone calls from her husband to drop the case or 'face death.'

Broken, Ruqaiyya eventually lost all strength to pursue the case. Her misery was compounded by the fact that her husband's brothers, both of whom were also involved in the attack, were set free on bail.

Recently she has been undergoing further surgeries at an NGO which provides treatment and support to acid attack victims. But due to her ailing health she is unable to work anymore or take care of her children.

The NGO has found Waqqas a job at a tailor’s workshop through which he earns Rs 500 per month. Ruqaiyya’s mother also works as a housekeeper and looks after her grandchildren. But this is not what Ruqaiyya had wanted for her family.

“Three of my sons are in school but Waqqas isn’t. I cannot wait to get better so he doesn’t have to work. It’s been years since the attack and we’re all still struggling to get our life back on track.”

Ruqaiyya’s husband has been and her case is still ongoing. While she struggles to survive for her children, her youngest son too battles for life.

“Arguments and fighting were normality ever since the beginning of our marriage. But I had never anticipated that he would avenge me this way, all for a few thousand rupees.”

“I have lost all faith in people; I can only trust God now.”

Mohammad Noman Sheikh's story

“I still spend nights crying in pain because recovery is extremely slow; I cannot sleep at night without taking pills,” Mohammad Noman Sheikh says in low trembling voice.

Sheikh is one of the many male victims of the acid violence, who much like the women are shunned and banished to a life of solitude. Acid attacks on males are not a new phenomenon nor is it just restricted to Pakistan or South Asia. From Europe to Africa, there are countless who have suffered but somehow their plight never manages to capture the attention of the media.

Even in domestic violence cases, sometimes the victim has been a male and the perpetrator a female. According to Acid Survivour Foundation, in 2014 there were reported 47 male victims of acid attack.

In the absence of treatment, counselling and support geared specifically towards male victims of acid violence, Noman is still struggling to put his life back on track after the brutal acid attack by his ex-wife, Sabra. The attack that took place two years ago had left him blind in the left eye, but now he complains of losing sight in the right one also.

The physical trauma and injury is not the only factor contributing to his sleepless nights. His wife, Sabra, also ran away with their daughter after the incident.

“I don’t care about myself. I just want my daughter back. I would be grateful to anyone who could free her from my wife’s clutches. She is not in the right hands.”

Noman had found Sabra at Native Jetty bridge, where she was about to commit suicide after her then-husband and mother-in-law had forced her into prostitution.

 Source:Acid Survivour Foundation
Source:Acid Survivour Foundation

Noman had saved her and promised to marry her.

“I fulfilled my promise, spent four years with her, we had a daughter and yet she chose to go back to that family. Everybody in my family shunned me because of this marriage,” the 27-year-old Noman recalls.

“My wife wanted to be reunited with her former husband and indulge in the same profession that I had saved her from. She used me to get a daughter who would earn for her as a prostitute too.”

Noman has been trying to fight his case for the past two years but no arrests have been made, nor has there been any hearing.

“I was summoned to the city courts every 15 days. Each time they would hear my account from the start and give a next date to come in. It was a tortuous cycle. I have stopped going to the courts now.”

In the aftermath of the attack, many had approached Noman to extend their help but it was only a “show”.

“Maya Khan called me in her show along with a lawyer who pledged to help me and fight my case for free. All he did was put me on a show for the world to see. He brought the whole media outside the court and put on another show for the world and then disappeared. Nothing became of it.”

Noman is unable to bear the expenses of his surgery that requires a new cornea and a surgery that would cost thousands. In his present condition, he is unable find work anywhere because of his physical condition and the ‘deranged attitude of society’ towards victims. He makes a little money by helping a neighbour, who is a estate agent. But this too is done over the phone, from the confines of the dark, forgotten place he once called home.

For him it is a prison now.

A breakdown of acid violence across Pakistan in 2014

 Source:Acid Survivour Foundation
Source:Acid Survivour Foundation

Text by Yumna Rafi
Photography by Muhammad Umar
Edited by Taimur Sikander

Click here for Dawn.com's special coverage of the year 2014