Jamiddah Namuyumba heard a man’s voice behind her, calling her. She turned around to tell the man, a regular customer, that she was sorry, but she had already sold out for the day.
But before she could, something splashed forcefully against her face. Immediately, a burning sensation began to claw over her skin. She tried to scream. But nothing came out.
“I felt a sensational burn and then I struggled to breathe and see,” she remembers.
Namuyumba had been the victim of an acid attack, a viciously personal form of violence common in more than a dozen countries in the world. As part of assaults, common chemicals—usually hydrochloric, sulphuric or nitric acids—are used to maim or kill victims.
Namuyumba stayed in hospital for over a year, but for years afterwards, the stigma of what had happened nearly broke her.
“People don’t want to sit with you in a taxi because of your looks,” she says. “It makes me so sad.”
Another woman, Ines Antonio, spent years in an abusive relationship and when she finally threatened to leave in 2014, her boyfriend, Jan Pieterrse, doused her with acid.
The attack made national headlines, but the prevalence of these kinds of assaults in South Africa is hard to tell, says Palesa Mpapa, legal and advocacy manager for People Opposing Women Abuse (Powa).
Without a dedicated category for “acid attacks” in statistics collected by the police or the courts, she says, this type of aggression is usually recorded as domestic violence or other types of assaults.
Pieterse, for instance, was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2015 for assault with the intent to cause grievous bodily harm. At the time, Antonio faced a long road to recovery, which included several reconstructive plastic surgeries.
Alex Botha is a plastic surgeon at Johannesburg’s Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital, where she has treated several acid victims.
“Acid literally burns your skin off,” she explains.
“Depending on how much acid falls on you and the strength, it can burn deeper structures like muscle and nervous system—even bones.”
Assailants favour acids that are cheap and plentiful in most countries. A litre of hydrochloric acid can cost as little as $0.37 (about K270) in India.
In Cambodia, where some families still rely on battery acid to help power their homes, a litre of the caustic liquid costs even less, a 2011 report from the United States’ Cornell University shows.
Bangladesh had about 3 000 acid attacks between 1999 and 2011, according to estimates by the advocacy organisation Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF).
For decades, activists around the world have struggled to curb acid attacks, which the police and courts often deem “domestic disputes” to be settled privately within families in countries such as India, Bangladesh and Uganda. Now, they are turning to the law to prevent attacks.
Since a 2002 law began heavily regulating the sale of many acids, attacks have decreased by at least 15 percent annually, ASF reports.
However, South Africa and other African countries have no regulations for the sale of acids commonly used in attacks. Mpapa says this might be difficult.
“The easiest way to access acid is through a battery of a car. It’s difficult to restrict access to your personal property,” she says.
“It’s really an issue of addressing violence within a domestic set-up.”
The Center for Rehabilitation of Survivors of Acid and Burns Violence (Ceresav) is helping victims such as Silvier Nambirige, Gloria Konkunda and Linneti Kirungi to cope.
Uganda passed the Toxic Chemicals Prohibition Control Bill in 2016. Although the law is focused on curbing the possibility of chemical weapons rather than acid attacks, activists from the Ceresav say this has drawn attention to their cause.
Still, survivors like Namuyumba are mostly left on their own to pick up the pieces of their lives.
Ceresav has stepped into that vacuum, offering job training and support to victims. Namuyumba, for instance, now spends her days weaving baskets and wall mats at the organisation’s Kampala offices.
Ceresav’s founder, Hanifa Nakiryowa, knows what it is like to be in their shoes.
In 2011, after seven years of marriage to an abusive husband, she walked out.
“I didn’t think I would survive another year if I stayed,” she recalls in Ceresav’s petition to support the toxic chemical control Bill.
“I felt empowered and free and finally looked forward to my future.”
Three months later, in retaliation, her husband attacked her with acid, blinding her in one eye and scarring her face.
As she lay recovering in hospital, she met other survivors, and, when she heard their stories she felt a surge of purpose.
“I felt I had other positive things to do despite the attack,” she says. “I didn’t have the money to buy justice, but I had the brains to go on.”
The next year, she founded Ceresav.
Between 1985 and 2010, Uganda recorded 382 victims of acid violence, according to a report by the Acid Survivors’ Foundation Uganda (Asfu), a local organisation. Asfu says the number is likely higher.
However, you parse the figures, most of them are women. The most common motive for attacks is relationship problems, according to Asfu.
Another reason is conflict over money or property. In 2011, for instance, Jane Mutesi was running a successful electronics store when she was attacked one night outside her house. The perpetrator was never found, but she suspects former business contacts who wanted her store were behind it.
After the attack, Mutesi closed herself off, fearful of how she would be judged.
“I would just close myself inside my house from morning until evening,” she says.
She finally plucked up the courage to go out and look for work. Employers turned her away brusquely.
Finally, a small informal grocery store said they would give her a shot on two conditions. She had to work the night shift and she had to wear a mask. She consented, but soon after, lost the job.
Many acid attack survivors come to Ceresav with similar stories, says Justine Mpagi, the organisation’s executive director.
“They start comparing life before the attack and life at present,” she says.
Nakiryowa, meanwhile, has found purpose in her activism.
“He thought he would break my spirit,”she says.
“But he only made me stronger.”
Nakiryowa says she has written of her ex-husband and his attack against her.—Mail & Guardian