PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — Here, the use of corrosive acid as a weapon to attack and maim is a major problem. The government passed tough new laws targeting acid violence last year, but many survivors are still waiting for justice.
For Som Bunnarith, memories of the day acid violence changed his life forever are as vivid in his mind as the scars on his skin.
“When it splashed on me, it felt hot. It even burned through the wood on the floor. I realized it was acid,” said Bunnarith.
The attacker was his wife, he said, upset with his late nights out. When he came home one morning, she threw the burning liquid on his face.
“My son told me, jump into the river, daddy. I jumped into the river. I was blinking in the water. Then I couldn’t see anything,” said Bunnarith.
That was more than 15 years ago. Today, Bunnarith is a peer counselor at the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity, a refuge where people recovering from acid attacks receive care and rehabilitation.
It’s a necessary service. The charity has recorded more than 300 acid attacks in Cambodia, going back to the 1980s. But those are just the ones they know of, said Ziad Samman, the center's project manager.
“The reason why it is so disturbing is because the intention is not to necessarily kill the intended victim, but to leave them marked physically and emotionally for the rest of their life,” said Samman.
Such attacks continue despite the passage of a tough new acid attack law late last year.
At just 18 years old, Koy Sreylak became one of this country’s most recent victims of acid violence.
“I just want the court to arrest the girl that threw acid on me, and put her in prison. That's what I want,” said Sreylak.
Advocates for acid attacks victims say they’re hopeful such cases will make it to trial under the new law, which carries tough penalties for convicted offenders.
But they also want strict regulations on the sale of all acids, including those contained in car and motorcycle batteries, or used for purifying gold and cleaning jewelry.
“Only half of the legislation was essentially approved. All of the regulatory aspects rely on a sub-decree, which has not been developed. So at the moment, if the law has two arms, punishment for perpetrators and regulation, only one of it is officially in effect at the moment,” said Samman.
While advocates wait for the legislation to be fully implemented, survivors like Bunnarith, are trying to get on with their lives.