Acid Attack Survivor Once Again Seeking Fresh Start

Som Bunnarith is looking for a job. He has two university degrees, one in marketing, another in English. He speaks Thai. He is eloquent and hard working. He is also blind and disfigured, the result of an acid attack nine years ago.

On bad days, he has doubts that he will find a job. On good days, he is confident that his four years of experience as a peer counselor for the Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity (CASC) makes him a good candidate to take up a counseling job at a different NGO. 

Som Bunnarith and his wife after the job interview with the National Center of Disabled Persons. (Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom)
Som Bunnarith and his wife after the job interview with the National Center of Disabled Persons. (Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom)

That’s already a long way since December 2005, when his wife doused him with acid. Back then, there were no good and bad days— they were all bad.

“In one minute, I lost everything. I lost my job, my status, my salary, my face,” he said.

He had no nose or ears to hold up the black sunglasses he wore to protect his vision—they rested only on his cheeks. Whenever he got thirsty, a sense of hopelessness struck him anew as he realized he depended entirely on others to pour him a glass of water.

Worst of all, he said, was the feeling of leading a life without value. Once he had been a regional marketing salesman for Coca-Cola, a respected man in his community in Pursat province with a sizeable income. In an instant, he became useless.

“I pitied myself. To be unemployed, although I had two university degrees, a good education and experience, but I couldn’t contribute to society, I couldn’t be part of it because I was disabled—it was so shameful,” Mr. Bunnarith said.

He tried to commit suicide twice. The first time, he wandered to a plot of land behind his sister’s house, using his walking stick to guide him. He bumped into a tree. After sunset, he thought to himself, he would return to that tree to hang himself.

“I walked out the back door, but I couldn’t find the tree anymore. I got lost in a cassava field,” he said.

The second time, when he tried to hang himself with a krama in his house, his son walked in on him. He pleaded with his father to stop. Crying, he said that he and his siblings needed their father.

It was a turning point for Mr. Bunnarith. He realized that, if nothing else, he was of value to his two sons and his daughter. From that moment on, there were good days, at least once in a while.

The Happiest Time

In 2006, Bunnarith moved to the Cambodian Acid Survivors’ Charity shelter in Kandal province, about an hour from Phnom Penh.

The shelter was a safe haven for survivors of acid attacks. CASC not only offered them a place to stay, but also provided counseling and taught them new skills such as basket-making and gardening. Here, survivors learned that life, eventually, would go on.

Quickly, Mr. Bunnarith became the person other survivors would open up to. He shared his experience, and offered solace and advice. Mostly, his days at the shelter were good.

Then, CASC asked him if he would like to work as a peer counselor, a staff position that included a modest monthly salary of around $100.

It didn’t matter to him that this was just a tiny fraction of his previous salary. “It was the happiest time of my life,” he said.

His position gave him the feeling of being needed, not just by the small CASC community, but also by society as a whole.

“Being employed here made me happy because I was useful again, not just a disabled person, but a useful part of society who helped others,” he said.

During his four years working at CASC, he counseled about 80 survivors. He trained other blind survivors in finding their way around the shelter and helped women accept that the reflection they saw in the mirror would never return to its former beauty.

The Downside of Success

In total, CASC, has helped hundreds of acid attack survivors through counseling, legal assistance, vocational training, health care and reconstructive surgeries.

In January 2012, the organization celebrated a major victory. A harsher law on acid attacks was passed after three years of advocacy. A year later, a sub-decree regulating the sale of acid was passed, although it is yet to be regularly enforced.

The passage of the law as well as outreach activities from organizations such as CASC have led to a significant drop in the number of new acid attack cases. In 2010, CASC took in a total of 36 new acid attack survivors. Last year, the number was down to six.

It’s a huge success story, but also one with downsides. Earlier this year, the NGO decided to scale down its operations. That included letting Mr. Bunnarith go.

“I think it was a strategic decision to let him go, looking at the sustainability of the organization. If you have only so many new cases, it makes sense to scale down,” explained Erin Bourgois, project manager at CASC.

The news that he was, once again, without a job, came as a shock to Mr. Bunnarith. But it was his wife—and attacker—Ear Kimly, whom the news worried the most.

“When he told me [that he lost his job], I didn’t worry much about finances, just about him. If he doesn’t get a job, he will feel useless again, he will feel that he has no value, and I don’t want him to get depressed,” she said. She recalled how, after the attack and before going to live and work at CASC, her husband constantly clung to a bottle of liquor and often spoke of killing himself.

It’s more than just a complicated relationship. Ms. Kimly insists that she loved Bunnarith in 2005, when she poured acid over his face, and she loves him still.

For years, though, she refused to apologize for blinding and disfiguring her husband. “My actions, the way I acted and tried to help as much as I could, that’s how I apologized,” she said. She says she has a slight understanding of the pain her husband has suffered, because her upper body was also burned during the attack.

“This [job at CASC] made him a new person. He understood his value, he is confident and it helped him to move forward,” Ms. Kimly said of Mr. Bunnarith.

When she arrived at the CASC shelter to take her husband back to Pursat, she saw how vulnerable he had become again. She decided to apologize.

“It seemed like the right thing to do. He lost his job, and I thought that was the only thing I could do to make him feel better,” she said.

Mr. Bunnarith didn’t know why the apology had come at this particular time. He said he had forgiven her a long time ago.

The Attack

It was December 31, 2005. At 6 a.m. Ms. Kimly was agitated, looking for her husband. As on many nights before, he hadn’t returned home. She went to the house of a woman she believed to be her husband’s mistress, about two kilometers from their family’s home.

“I saw him leave the house. My heart was beating fast, and I felt a burning inside me…. On that day, I couldn’t control my anger.”

Som Bunnarith and his wife have lunch. (Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom)
Som Bunnarith and his wife have lunch. (Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom)

“My idea was that a woman doesn’t rape a man. He must have approached her and flirted with her, so he was responsible. Besides, I thought that even if I destroyed her beauty, he would just find another woman,” Ms. Kimly said.

She hid a small container of battery acid behind her back, waiting for her husband to arrive back home.

The images that followed were the last ones Mr. Bunnarith would see. He remembers them well. The wooden terrace where he was looking for paperwork. His daughter and sons, playing around the house. Ms. Kimly, young and beautiful, her right hand behind her back. A 500 riel plastic bottle, pointed at his face.

The acid inside cost just 4,000 riel, but it would rob the couple of their entire income and the future they had imagined for themselves and their children.

It’s still hard for Ms. Kimly to talk about the moments after she doused her husband in acid. “I thought the acid would burn his skin only a little, that it would make it itchy. This is not what I planned,” she said.

Ms. Kimly struggled to continue speaking. She paused, then cried: “Whenever I think about what I did to him, I think how my anger from this one day has brought misery over all our lives.”

As the acid was burning through Mr. Bunnarith’s skin, he dashed down the stairs, out of the house, and toward a nearby pond.

A taxi driver stopped and looked in horror, he said. Smoke was coming from his body. The shape of the driver, the car, nearby houses and trees started to fade.

“I could still see when I started to run. I saw the pond.  Then the acid started to run down my face, into my eyes,” he said.

By the time he had reached the lake, he was blind.

While he was recovering in the hospital, Ms. Kimly was imprisoned for the attack on her husband. But Mr. Bunnarith asked his brother to bail her out. It was his children he was worried about. With a mother in prison and a father who was now blind, who would take care of them?

“I saw that I needed to forgive her,” he said.

Beyond forgiveness, he said he still loves her.

“When we first met, it was the love of a young couple. Then we had children, and our love was not just the two of us anymore. And now, it’s changed again, but it’s still love,” he said.

Returning Home

The days back in Pursat, he said, have mostly been bad again. The house is small, but he doesn’t know his way around. At the shelter, Mr. Bunnarith used to play the electric organ to relax, but the music disturbs the neighbors here.

“I haven’t played once since I moved back,” he said.

Late last month, he was having a good day again. Together with his wife, he returned to the CASC shelter to stay overnight before his first job interview the following day.

The shelter, he said, still feels like home.

Smoothly, he ran his walking stick along a low wall that separates three wooden houses from a garden in which survivors used to grow cabbage and beans. In the past couple months, it has been left untended and is now overgrown.

A bulletin board shows pictures of support group meetings during which survivors shared experiences, sang and danced. Two survivors even fell in love, got married and now have a baby daughter.

The meetings, CASC said, will still take place at the shelter, but transportation costs won’t be covered anymore.

Financial support for education, for survivors as well as their children, was scrapped as well as home visits for survivors unable to travel.

Altogether, the operations were scaled down by 75 percent.

“It’s the goal of any NGO to be put out of business. It’s great, but when that happens there is still some support that’s needed when government support is not in place,” Ms. Bourgois said. Although the Acid Law stipulates that the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Health should take care of survivors, none of them have received help from the government yet, she added.

The shelter will be kept in case new survivors need a safe place to rehabilitate, and the Children’s Surgical Center, a partner of CASC, will still offer free medical care and surgeries for attack victims.

Scaling down the operations affects all survivors, Ms. Bourgois said, but it was Mr. Bunnarith she was most worried about.

That’s why Ms. Bourgois and the remaining CASC staff helped set up his first job interview at the National Center for Disabled People (NCDP).

The First Chance

It was pouring rain when Mr. Bunnarith boarded a bus that would take him to the job interview.  Ms. Kimly was holding his arm.

“I hope he will get the job. It will give him hope,” she said.

The center is hard to find. No signs were set up to guide the way to the new building in Sen Sok district’s Phnom Penh Thmey commune, reachable on a small dirt road. The lobby of the peach-colored, two-story building is mostly vacant, except for a fish tank and about a dozen rusty wheelchairs.

Off the bat, Mr. Bunnarith was told that there was a mix-up. The NCDP could not hire him. Instead, they were meeting him to accept his resume, and to refer him to other organizations.

“They told me that for now, I will have to wait,” he said, adding that currently, no available jobs suited his skills and disabilities.

Overall, the NCDP’s success at placing people with disabilities is modest. Since 2001, program coordinator Mak Monika said, a total of 19,933 people had registered with the NCDP. Almost all were looking for employment, some for vocational training. Only 836 of these applicants could be placed in jobs.

“From my experience, people who are blind are the most difficult to refer,” she said.

Mr. Bunnarith was well aware that it would not be easy for him to find new employment.

“Being blind is different from other disabilities. We can’t use computers and can’t write reports, so it’s very difficult for us to find a job,” he said.

Through his experience as a counselor, he knows that asking “What if?” isn’t helpful. He knows that accepting the past is the only way to move forward.

At times like these, however, he can’t help it.

His former co-workers at Coca-Cola have been promoted several times or are working for other beverage companies now. They make between $1,500 to $2,000 per month, he said.

Every once in a while, he meets his former colleagues. They were among the first people Mr. Bunnarith called to tell about his job with CASC.

“I was so proud of myself, I called them and told them. They were impressed, because I am blind, but with the job at CASC, I could make a living and contribute to society,” he said.

That’s what he is hoping to find again, against the odds: a job that will allow him to contribute to society, with a salary that supports his children’s education. Something to do that will keep him from falling into a hole again.

“I really want to work. I am skilled. I am strong and only 43 years old. I think I can still find a job to support my family. If my children have to stop studying because I have no job, that would make me very unhappy,” he said, before boarding a bus that would take him back to his family’s home in Pursat.

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