Pakistan-Acid Victims Try to Rebuild Lives

By Orla Guerin - BBC News, Rawalpindi

13 April 2010


At four years old, Gul-e-Mehtab already knows what she wants to do when she grows up.

This little girl, whose name means "moonlight flower", wants to be a doctor in order to heal her own mother, Manzoor Attiqa.


"She says: 'Mama when I grow up, I will become a doctor. I will treat you, and then you will be perfect'," Manzoor says, with a proud smile.


Twenty-two-year-old Manzoor is a patient in surgical ward 10 in Benazir Bhutto hospital in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi.

Manzoor Attiqa

Manzoor says the attack followed a row over doing the dishes

The ward is a cluster of women in brightly coloured shawls, who share the same scars and the same trauma. All have been attacked with acid.


There are no reliable national statistics, but campaigners estimate that there may be as many as 150 victims every year.


It is an intimate crime - often carried out in the family home, by husbands or in-laws. Manzoor's attack followed a row over doing the dishes.


"It was seven o'clock in the morning, and I had just finished making breakfast," she says.


"My daughter was crying so I picked her up, but her grandmother said: 'Leave her and wash the dishes.' I told her that I would wash them, and that we had the whole day ahead of us. After this, they started beating me. I was unconscious for four or five days. I woke up in hospital in Lahore."


While she lay unconscious, Manzoor was drenched in acid. It devoured her lower lip, neck and shoulders and left her chin fused to her chest.


But when she speaks of the in-laws she blames for the attack, there is no bitterness. In spite of her injuries, and her suffering, she says that she has forgiven them.


"They are like my own mother and sisters," she says. "I just pray God shows them the right path, so they can't do this kind of thing to anybody else. I forgave them, so that they could realise they did wrong."


Get the sellers

When we meet Manzoor, she is about to have her sixth surgery - performed free by a group of Pakistani experts, and British volunteers, led by plastic surgeon Charles Viva.


The retired NHS doctor, with a snow-white walrus moustache, has spent decades treating the poor around the globe, including many victims of acid burns.

Charles Viva, plastic surgeon

Retired plastic surgeon Charles Viva has treated many acid burns victims

"I feel very passionately angry about this because God has made us whole, and for somebody to do this causes a lot of distress for the patients and their families," he says. "We do what we can to give the women back their dignity."


In Manzoor's case, this means grafting skin from her leg on to her neck, so that she can lift her head fully.


Mr Viva wants action against those who sell the acid, not just those who throw it.

"I think we need some very strong deterrents to prevent this happening," he said.

"I think it's essential that the government and the authorities should target the people who perpetrate the crime, and those who supply the acid. They are just as guilty for giving the acid."


Two hours later, Manzoor is back in ward 10. Her surgery was a success, but it won't be her last.


'It didn't end my life'

Opposite her, in bed nine, Saira Liaqat is recovering from her latest operation - her 18th. Her face is still bandaged, but already she is sitting up, supported by her mother, Gulshan.


A medical file rests at the end of the bed, with photos of a striking girl in a gold headdress. That was Saira seven years ago, before she was attacked.

Saira Liaqat, after surgery, supported by her mother, Gulshan

Saira Liaqat was attacked several years ago, but has plans for the future

Acid has erased any resemblance to the pretty girl of the past, but it has not crushed her spirit. Since the attack, she has trained as a beautician.


"I want to own my own beauty parlour," she says.


"I want people to say 'that's the girl who suffered and didn't lose hope'. I want to support my parents as well as a son can. I want to show that person that even though he threw acid in my face, it didn't end my life."


Saira's husband is still on trial for her attack. If convicted, he could get between five and 14 years. Gulshan wants an eye for an eye.


"He should either get the death penalty, or have acid thrown in his face, so he knows how it feels," she says.


"The law is weak in Pakistan. If criminals like him are given a tough punishment immediately, then nobody will do this kind of thing."


Campaigners are calling for the introduction of life sentences. They say that while Pakistan is finally waking up to this issue, there is still a long way to go.


"At the highest level, people like the chief justice are taking acid violence very seriously," says Valerie Khan of the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), which helps many of the victims.


"In the past six months, we are seeing higher sentences being handed down. But the vast majority of women are unable to even register a case. And police are still turning a blind eye, due to corruption and social pressure."


While she slept

One of many still waiting for justice is 23-year-old Naseera Bibi. She is friendly and talkative, in spite of her debilitating injuries.


The acid thrown in her face, while she slept, ate through her nose and both of her eyes. She believes her husband was the culprit.


I've learnt how to knit sweaters and my children are back with me. I can't just sit around and lose hope

Naseera Bibi

She says she heard his voice next to her, as the acid melted her skin, telling her to say it was someone else.


"I started screaming. Then I heard my husband telling me whoever asks you who did it, just say it was Javed. I told him that I haven't seen anybody. He kept insisting whoever asks you, just say Javed did it."


Naseera's main concern now is how to provide for her children, without her sight.

"I've been taken to about 10 doctors, but there doesn't seem to be a chance of restoring my eyesight," she says.


"I've been very upset about this, because I have become a burden. But the ASF sent me to a school to study. I've learnt how to knit sweaters, and my children are back with me. I can't just sit around and lose hope."


Like other acid attack survivors in ward 10, Nazeera has been robbed of her looks, but not of her courage.


She has two dreams for the future - to send her children to school, and for her attacker to be punished.


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