Conflict & Justice

Acid Attacks on the Rise in Uganda

By Bonnie Allen

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Deus Twesigye sits in the back of a bus in Uganda, dreading the inevitable whispers and stares. The 28-year old accountant pulls his baseball cap down to hide his disfigured face. Scars stretch in all directions like a jigsaw puzzle. Half of his nose is missing.

Twesigye is the victim of an acid throwing attack.

"It's sad for me to be in environment with many people," Twesigye said. "You see people looking at you, wondering what has happened to you. It has changed my life."

Twesigye said his ex-girlfriend is to blame. They dated in college for three years, but Twesigye broke up with her when he moved to a different town to start a job. Six months later, he said, the ex-girlfriend confronted him and splashed sulfuric acid in his face.

"Immediately, I felt a lot of pain and I couldn't see anything," Twesigye said.

According to the police, the ex-girlfriend confessed to the acid attack. Inspector Constantine Tarasi said she was jealous that Twesigye was seeing other women.

"She said she was very disappointed he was no longer interested in her," Tarasi, and that he was seeing other women.

Twesigye's story is all too common here, according to Dr. Ben Khingi, a plastic surgeon who treats two or three acid-attack victims every month at Uganda's national hospital.

But acid attacks are not common in Africa, compared to places like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where hundreds of women are burned and disfigured every year. Khingi said the victims in Uganda are both women and men, and he's no longer surprised when a woman has engineered the crime.

"Most of the people who do it are women," Khingi said. "But also some men have been paid to do it."

It's not entirely clear why acid attacks have caught on in Uganda, said Doreen Ayebare, with the Acid Survivors Foundation in the capital, Kampala. But she points out that throwing acid can be done from a distance, and that acid is cheap and readily available. The attacks are also rarely prosecuted.

Ayebare said most of the attacks are crimes of passion.

"It's rejected love; I wanted you, you don't want me. You're cheating on me. You rejected me," she said.

Why throw acid?

"Most of these people want to destroy," Ayebare said. "If I can't have you, let no one have you."

There can also be an economic factor. Cambodia is another place where women commit acid attacks. A recent study there suggests that women are so dependent on men economically and socially that they seek revenge when their relationship with a boyfriend or husband is threatened.

In Uganda, that's often the case as well.

Dorothy Komuhendo sells shoes on the side of the road in Kampala. She married a man who already had one wife. Komuhendo said that when the husband paid attention to her and gave her money to start a business, the other wife hired someone to pour acid on her.

The second wife wanted to burn her so that she would die, Komuhendo said. "It was out of jealousy."

Komuhendo survived, but spent the next year undergoing skin-graft surgeries. She said she was lucky. The acid burned her back and neck, but not her face.

Deus Twesigye was not so lucky. But unlike most acid-throwing incidents, his case has gone to trial.

His ex-girlfriend now denies that she wanted revenge, and she said she can't remember confessing to the crime. She said that she only remembers saying, "Deus, I'm sorry for how you look."

Deus Twesigye said regardless of the trial's outcome, he's the one who will serve a life sentence.

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