Women News Network



August 19, 2009

Zambia - Acid Crime Survival 

Women face extreme violence from acid

- Correspondent SALLY CHIWAMA – Women News Network – WNN

Artwork by sculptor Theo Junior - 2009

Artwork by sculptor Theo Junior - 2009

Lusaka, ZAMBIA: “You have to “grow” crocodile skin to clean the wounds of an acid survivor. The worst ordeal was while in the hospital, as the skin kept peeling off.

“I didn’t realize that the tongue skin was also peeling off. The young girl was pushing something in her mouth. I opened her mouth to see and found that almost the whole tongue had come off. I had to pull it out like you do with a cow and only a little red thing (tongue) remained.”

These excruciating words by a girl’s older sister describe the aftermath of the worse physical attack a 13 yr old could ever experience.

What happened to 13 yr old Fridah Mwansa (not her real name) has been happening to women and girls at an ever increasing rate in Africa.  Acid violence in Zambia, also known as “acid attacks,” acts quickly and silently; without the victim knowing at first what is happening. For the first few seconds after acid is thrown or poured, confusion sets in. Then panic, as the skin burst open from the effects of the chemical.

Acid - A Weapon of Choice

Nitric acid, sulphuric acid and/or hydrochloric acid in the Central Asia and Africa regions are today’s “weapons of choice” for criminals who are bent on punishment or revenge. These acids makes the perfect weapon because they are easily hidden and carried; cheap to buy and easy to use. Hydrochloric, nitric and sulphuric acid literally melts the skin instantly upon contact. In less than a few minutes, the bone under the skin can start to be exposed. If there is enough acid, the bone itself can become a soft mass of non-distinguishable jelly. Internal organs can dissolve. Fingers, noses and ears can melt away like chocolate on a hot day.

Known to chemists as HNO3, nitric acid was originally used in secret rocket fuel formulas by development scientists in Germany and Russia, and later the United States, from 1941 to the late 1950s.

Today it is still one of the ingredients used in jet fuel propellant. Nitric acid is also used primarily in the manufacture of fertilizer, or in gold jewelry manufacturing to separate gold from other metals.

“Red Fuming Nitric Acid,” is a key substance used in the manufacture of Iraqi military Scud, Guidline, Silkworm and Kyle missiles. Controversies with the toxic effects in causalities in the use and deployment of these weapons of war increased during the US Gulf War era. Today these weapons are still in use. The production of acid in chemical manufacturing facilities has also held some of the responsibility for troubles with today’s global acid rain.

Although nitric acid is actively being manufactured worldwide, especially in China and India, it still has an equally strong manufacturing and distribution base inside the US. In 1991, the US manufactured approx 11 million tons of HNO3 in 65 separate US sponsored nitric acid plants.

“World nitric acid production in 2006 was estimated at about 51 million metric tons,” says CHE – the Chemical Economics Handbook Program, one of the world’s leading chemical reporting and marketing agencies.

But how easy is it for anyone to buy? In the US it’s simple. For only $39.95 (USD) a 500ml amber bottle of 69.5% concentration of nitric acid can easily be purchased by anyone online. Globally it’s the same.

“In Dhaka (India), sulphuric acid can be readily purchased for just 44 cents a pound (roughly half a litre), with nitric acid slightly higher at 59 cents a pound,” said a Jan 2009 report on Bangladeshi acid attacks by IRIN – Humanitarian News and Analysis.

Interviewing an Acid Survivor

Interviewing an acid survivor is tricky. The damage to victims is so severe, as a journalist myself, it’s hard not to react personally to the story.

As Fridah’s sister, Annette, narrated her excruciating story to me, her little sister Fridah sat close on my side, as if she needed some kind of protection. She looked scared, vulnerable and alone. I asked her if she wanted to tell me her whole story. Her answer came swiftly as a tear dropped from the one good eye she had left.

“I don’t want to talk about it; I’m really tired of this,” she said flatly.

I wondered; should I press her to tell me exactly what she was tired of?

“It brings back very painful memories,” she declared. “I can see the whole incident all over again, and very clearly, like it happened yesterday”.

I sat patiently. All I could do was listen and watch and take notes. She looked like her pain was excruciating. Half her face was missing.

In 2002, in a small village 80 kilometers from Lusaka, in the village of Mpika boma, 11 yr old Fridah was doing her homework when she suddenly found out from her parents she was now “engaged” to be married to a man many years her senior.

Her parents had already received the “insalamu” (dowry) for their daughter, so the agreement was done. Two years, after Fridah completed her primary education, the child would be handed over in a bridal ceremony to her new husband, Thomas Chileshe.

With Fridah’s difficult news her older sister, Annette, had another idea. She made plans for a rescue. Annette helped Fridah move to the capital of Zambia, Lusaka, where Fridah could complete her education away from an unwanted “fiancé” in relative obscurity and safety.

But Thomas Chileshe had other plans too, even after the news that Fridah’s family wanted to annul all the marriage arrangements, in a series of calculated moves he would do everything he could in an attempt to force Fridah to be his wife.

“Listen Thomas, this relationship was made in the village and not in Lusaka, if you want to see this child, you can see her in the village during the holidays,” Annette said to Chileshe after he showed up on Annette’s doorstep uninvited.

Thomas was hoping to take Fridah back home to live with him right away. “This girl is here for school, so please make this your last visit,” repeated Annette sternly to Chileshe.

Acid Crime and the Law

The need to pay attention to stories about the brutal forms that acid attacks take is evident. Increasing numbers of humanitarians and global rights activists are now rallying worldwide to bring legislative sanctions to global acid violence perpetrators, underground acid resellers, acid distributors and manufacturers.

The first case of reported acid attack in the world happened in Bangladesh in 1967 when a suitor threw acid on a young girl as his bid for marriage was refused by the girl’s mother. 32 years later, in 2009, acid attacks and VAW – violence against women – has grown exponentially worldwide. Although statistics have shown a slight leveling in acid attacks in Bangladesh over the past few years, other global regions have been showing an increase.

To battle acid crime, Bangladesh has passed the Nari-O-Shishu Damon Ain Act 2000, along with the Acid Control Act and the Acid Crime Control Act in 2002. These legislative attempts to sanction acid violence have helped but there are still holes in the system. The Acid Crime Control Act Penal Code is so severe it specifically gives the death sentence in certain situations. But on the ground police protection for crime victims is still lacking.

According to the Bangladesh Acid Crime Control Act, if investigators of the crime neglect their duties in properly collecting evidence or making witness reports, the investigators and enforcement officers can also be sanctioned. The Acid Crime Control Tribunal in Bangladesh is now working on connecting the dots with legal recourse for victims.

Zambia has yet to create a legal framework for the clear prosecution of acid criminals. Zambian women are the majority of targets. Detailed legislation is desperately needed.

Deception – Lies and Intimidation

“He told me his mother was very ill and had traveled to Lusaka to seek medical attention and had asked to see me,” said Fridah in a description of the events that led up to her trauma.

“I asked him why his mother wanted to see me and he said because she wanted to hear from me in person; to know whether it was actually true that I wanted to discontinue the engagement,” added Fridah. “He assured me that visiting her would only be for a short while. He would make sure I got home safe and in good time.”

But lies come easy.

When Fridah arrived at the place where Thomas was staying he invited the young girl quickly inside. As soon as she sat down, Chileshe locked all the doors as he wrestled Fridah’s mobile phone from her hand. In her youthful naïveté Fridah asked to see Thomas’ mother, but Chileshe told her that she wasn’t in the house, that she was far away and nowhere near them. She was back home in the village.

Fridah Mwansa before and after acid attack. Image: Sally Chiwama

Fridah Mwansa before and after acid attack. Image: Sally Chiwama

By that time, “my sister was (frantically) calling me to try to find out my whereabouts,” said Fridah describing the incident. “Thomas had gone outside with my phone locking me up inside,” Fridah continued. “He dialed Annette, telling my sister that she would never see me again because I was now his wife.”

At that point there was no going back.

In a chilling move, Thomas began using Fridah’s mobile phone, in a form of texting crime, calling her bank of relatives; her bothers, her sisters, her “Aunties;” telling them all they would never see Fridah again; and that they shouldn’t bother looking for her because he had married her.

Back at Annette’s home, Fridah’s sister was in a panic as she called the Lusaka Police Service to report Fridah’s abduction to the Victim Support Unit (VSU). “No, she didn’t know Chleshe’s location.”

The police thanked Annette for the notification. The night was long and full of tears.

Next day, Thomas Chileshe’s sister-in-law went to the house where Fridah lay captive. She tried to reason with her brother-in-law through a window in the house asking him, why was he keeping this child trapped without the consent of her guardians? She pleaded with him to let the young girl go.

It worked. Thomas opened the door freeing Fridah to walk home from her ordeal.

But Thomas never did let go.

“I went home alone and reported the entire incident to the VSU,” said Fredah. “My family tried to find out if Thomas had raped me. I told them the truth; that he never slept in the house while I was there, but they wouldn’t believe me. In fact, I am still a virgin,” said Fridah tearing.

It was after this that the text messages began.

“Nag banana Chachiine nkakwipaya,” was the first message that suddenly appeared one afternoon on Fridah’s phone. It translates a chilling message, “If it is true that you have denied me, I will kill you.”

This message and the ones that followed were reported one by one to Lusaka’s VSU – Victim Support Unit. But they couldn’t promise any clear protection for Fridah.

At first Fridah and her sister didn’t take the messages seriously. They even laughed about many of the threats. But the messages didn’t stop. They came more and more frequently as the ongoing tone of violence from Thomas became more and more urgent.

Fridah tried to ignore the urgency in the words. With each text message she tried to decide if she should save it and show it to the VSU. She wished the whole thing would just wear off and go away. What else could she do? The police could make no promises.

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