s a photographer, the only powerful medium to express and communicate that I possess is my camera. An instrument that offers an infinite range of perception and interpretation, creating images that stimulate and provoke thoughts. I started working on this project a year before setting foot into this incredible piece of land known as Bangladesh. Even though I had a strong passion to start this project, it wasn’t easy on me. During that time I always felt restless and I had the feeling that I wasn’t prepared or capable of using the right amount of delicacy to tell the story of this devastating act, in its simplicity and anonymity, of this invisible and silent weapon. I am aware that my camera is the eye through which the world sees the story that I want to tell and it is almost inevitable that society would react strongly to it. I then felt a huge responsibility to find the correct approach I should have with these souls, to be able to properly explain what they experience to others that are not aware of this horror.
But from the first moment I met Selina, Executive Director at Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) and listened to her graceful words, that anxiety faded. I mostly stayed silent on that couch because I was enjoying myself so much listening to her enveloping voice and what she was telling me. And I especially remember one thing she said, something that stuck in my mind for days.
“The worst crime on this planet is to steal”
I spent a lot of time thinking and questioning myself about that, and I finally realized what she meant. Stealing: when you tell a lie, you steal the right to know the truth; when you kill a man, you steal a life; when you take advantage of somebody, you steal time, when you deprive a person of their identity, you steal a future. She was right. That last bit of remaining awkwardness that remained inside me, disappeared completely when I met them. At first I thought that communication was the obvious way to learn each other’s values but words were not necessary. Smiles and glances were enough to gradually build a mutual trust and the mental and emotional barrier between me and these contemporary heroes was broken almost immediately.
“I was the most beautiful girl in my village, I had a lot of friends and I was so happy..”.
Rehana was living with her family and following her dream of studying laboratory medicine when her identity was stolen. Until this tragedy happened to her, she didn’t know what pain was like. Her only “fault” was to refuse the proposal of a neighbour.
“It was dark, and suddenly I heard a presence beside my bed. As soon as I opened my eyes I saw him throwing a bucket of acid at my face. Immediately I felt like I was dying, I felt my beauty disappear and with it my future. That day I lost my childhood and all my friends”.
Rehana suffered for a long time from complete mental breakdown including identity crisis, because of her lost and distorted appearance and, due to disfigurement, she also stopped her education. From that moment Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) immediately provided support with rehabilitation, medical and monetary assistance to help rebuild her life. And she finally made it. She has now returned to life, after facing the depths of a nightmare made up of isolation, where there was no space for affections and love and where the prospect of a normal life no longer existed. She’s now working in an institution and two years ago her family arranged a marriage for her. Today she is a happily married woman. For a moment her eyes are filled with tears but that melancholy disappears as soon as her baby, to get attention, caresses the scars on her face. He doesn’t care about those wounds, he loves her mother in the way she is. She then kisses him on the forehead and she smiles. A wonderful and incredibly moving gesture.
una was 20 whenshe was attacked by her cousin at night. A “crimeof passion” asit is usually called. An almost natural gesture in response to the anger fueledby jealousy and revenge against a woman who rejected a proposal of marriage. Thisis the intent of the aggressor, to ruin a human face forever. To satisfy hisgrievance, to make his target lonely and suicidal, and to demonstrate to othersthe consequences of alleged misdeeds. A perennial punishment. “If she isdisfigured, she will not be anybody else’s” he thinks. “If she is scarred,blind and deaf she will permanently be a burden to her family because she willnever find a job”. In the attack her face was brutally disfigured losingthe sight in her left eye. It took 12 years and 15 surgeries before she couldget back to real life. Her husband, since then, never abandoned her and gaveher all the strength she needed to keep on living. Today the look in her righteye reflects and represents the courage and determination to build a new lifefor herself and a new hope for the future.
Peyara’s accident occurred in 1998. Even more than the pain and the psychological distress caused by the anxiety of her appearance, she was initially terrified that her family would be scared and reject her. But with their love, acceptance and support, she was able to overcome this anxiety and move forward with her life. A tear slowly runs down her face, during a moment of peaceful reflection looking at the world outside the window. She remains strong in the face of the inevitable reality of a different future from the one she had imagined. Today Peyara is a community advocate and spokeswoman on behalf of Acid Survivors Foundation, working as a peer counselor and as a resource for local victims to help them in their legal issues. Where she was once terrified of a future facing the difficulty of returning to a society where she be would ostracized for being different, today Peyara stands proudly. Now she is a responsible mother, a community leader, a survivor advocate and a hero.
Sweety was just a little girl when, on one night 12 years ago, her husband decided to rob her beauty. From the very first moment I set foot in her home she never stopped smiling to me. She is so lovely and radiates happiness that no other name could be so appropriate for her.
“I got married at the age of 12. A child marriage arranged by my family who thought it was the right choice for me. But my life had just begun to become a nightmare”. “His parents were always thirsty for money and my husband often beat me if my family did not pay enough. The problem arose when all my parent’s savings ran out. For over a year I was beaten and raped. Until the last warning, where his whole family took the decision to rise up using the acid”.
Acid attacks have been often used to punish married women if her family is unable or unwilling to pay additional dowry demanded by the husband or his family. Such attacks are common in societies where there is a high level of gender inequality and women occupy a subordinate position in relation to men.
“The worst of the pain that came straight away was not even when I realized that my future was erased forever, much like my facial traits, but when people told me it was all my fault. They stared and mocked me. Friends and even relatives blamed me, saying that my family must have done something wrong to earn such a punishment”.
Pain, tears, suffering, 5 years of treatments and 6surgeries, but Sweety never lost her smile. She stands in front of me andbehind her, at the top of a shelf, a bright sparkling trophy stands out. Sheexplains to me that since she was little her dream was to become a ballerina. Thatdream never ended up staying inside her and came to fruition, and that trophyup there represents exactly that: courage, commitment and passion.
oday, acid attacks are reported in many parts of the world, mainly concentrated in South Asia. Bangladesh, with the highest number, has reported nearly 3500 acid attack victims since 1999, peaking at 494 victims for the year of 2002. Since then rates have been steadily decreasing by 20%, with the amount of acid attack victims reported at 44 as recently as 2016. One of the great merits is surely the help provided by AcidSurvivors Foundation (ASF), one of the very few NGOs who are working closely with the Bangladeshi Government. They started their journey with a vision to reduce and eventually eliminate acid attacks in Bangladesh and ensure that acid survivors are able to live with dignity. In this regard, they run a 20-bed hospital that is fully equipped to provide standard burn care services, including plastic and reconstructive surgery in a low resource set up.
The 45 staff members (including 25 survivors) are also able to provide legal, medical, counseling, and monetary assistance to survivors to help them with rebuilding their lives. It is undoubtedly a step forward for the entire society, but despite the significant reduction of their number and the declining of this kind of violence trend overthe years, unfortunately this is a crime that still occurs the world over.
“It’s time to stop talking about numbers” says Selina (Executive Director at Acid SurvivorsFoundation) and change the conversation from the physical trauma, scars, numbers, statistics and talk about the amazing progress that many of these people have achieved.
“We are grateful to our survivors who are becoming change agents and trying to not only rebuild their lives, but also contributing to changing others. Our survivors are playing a vital role to prevent and protect acid violence which is very positive and encouraging”.
A contribution to force people to increase their awareness and sensibility and look at violence against women in a way they previously hadn’t, to help stop future attacks. Rehana, Runa, Peyara and Sweety are just some of the many heroes that demand justice by removing the veil and speaking out. Proudly showing their faces. They are the real symbol of a cruel fate that is changing. Souls that found the courage to reclaim their lives, defeated violence, victimization, depression and despair with the courage to step into new roles as change agents and role models for others.
heir strength and resilience are a source of inspiration for all the victims of all forms of violence, showing that anything is possible when you face something with the courage from within. Their determination and fortitude are extraordinary examples of how every challenge can be converted into opportunity.