DHAKA, Bangladesh (WOMENSENEWS)--She is a keeper of healing secrets. Every now and then Nurun Nahar would gently squeeze a woman's hand and whisper, "It will hurt; you might not recognize your face, but if I can get through, so will you."
A survivor of an acid attack in 1995, Nahar, 32, now counsels other victims of acid attacks.
She says some victims are virtually catatonic, some wail, some deny, almost all are in pain and feel helpless. She tells them her story, how a spurned lover hurled acid when she was 16. She listens to their stories.
Nahar spoke with Women's eNews in an office in Gulshan, a part of Dhaka that is a hub for nongovernmental organizations.
Acid attacks continue in Bangladesh despite a 2002 law making them punishable by death and imposing a no-bail policy on perpetrators.
Between 1999 and 2009, 2,978 people were attacked, according to the Dhaka-based Acid Survivors Foundation, out of which about 68 percent were women and girls.
The numbers have waned, falling from 367 incidents in 2002 to 116 in 2009.
But even now property disputes, jealousy, rejected love, eve teasing, dowry, a fight over a bucket of water and family feuds can spur an attack.
"The damage is irreversible and healing ongoing," said Nahar, her hair loosely tied in a bun covering her charred left ear.
Nahar and her attacker, Jasim Sikdar, then 21, lived in the same Patuakhali village.
But he belonged to the landowning class and she lived with her widowed mother and sister in a mud hut. He stalked her, harassing her on her way to school. He proposed to her; she firmly rebuffed him. His wooing then gave way to threats to destroy her beauty.
"I chose to ignore him, didn't take him seriously," she said.
One balmy July night, a gang of eight young men broke into her house. They tried to pull her out. But mother and daughter held each other tightly-- scuffling, howling and refusing to let go. Sikdar and his friends pinned Nahar down and squirted acid over her face.
"Water," she recalled screaming. "I am burning." But the water stung, she pushed away, writhing in pain and shock.
The acid ate into her skin. When she touched her face it felt gooey and bloody like melted wax. "Everyone thought the boys had sliced my face with a dagger."
The doctors in the nearby town and the district hospital were clueless. She was moved to the government-run Dhaka Medical College.
Lying in bed, she was often quiet, visiting her past. The school pranks, walks, giggles, exam notes, teenage dreams.
"The injury would heal, everything will be same," she remembered thinking.
For five months her tight-knit family guarded her, kept her away from her own reflection. One day she stole a pocket-sized mirror from the cleaning lady's handbag. She fainted.
"Then I realized the damage. I looked like a monster," she said.
Pills and creams blunted her pain, but her face was mangled with jarred and discolored scars. Her spirit battered.
After nine months Nahar returned to the support of her villagers. But nothing could stop her anxieties.
Nasreen Huq, a volunteer activist for Naripokkho, a Dhaka-based women's rights group, publicized her case. Nahar's medical bills were waived and she moved to Dhaka. Within a year Sikdar and four of his friends were given life sentences.
"No punishment is enough. If I see him maybe I will beat him up," Nahar said with an indignant edge in her voice.
Over the years she has gone through dozens of operations, skin grafts and medicines to restore some sense of normalcy to her scarred face.
She shunned mirrors, dressed in dark-colored enveloping cloaks. She brushed her teeth under the veil and ate alone. She wanted to be invisible and move like smoke.
"I never thought of suicide, but did not know how to live" she said.
But Huq persisted in helping Nahar handle the trauma.
"Everyone said the society should be ashamed and not me," Nahar said.
She was being swallowed by a very specific, very focused anger that asked, why me?
One day she began to accept that her life was inside out, upside down. She began picking up the bits and pieces. Grief and fury ebbed and she began to focus on restoring her life.
Gradually she shed the shroud, joined college and made friends. She is scorched but wiser with a new sense of dignity.
"Before the attack I thought dark people were ugly; I never drank from the same glass as them," she said. Now she said she knows beauty is all about the heart and gaily looks at the mirror.
A Vocal Activist
Nahar has worked with Naripokkho, Action Aid and other nongovernmental organizations. She counsels other survivors and has become a vocal activist against acid violence.
"But tragedy is written on my face, even when I moved on, there are always those jabs reminding me of what I have lost," she said.
She is aware of people on the streets often angling for a glimpse. Children stare, sometimes turning around craning their necks. There are also jeers and jokes.
Mostly she ignores them. But sometimes she is provoked when a rickshaw puller asks, "What happened sister?"
Her voice was clipped and angry as she related that. "They know exactly what happened. But they want to hear it." Her lips tightened. "This is plain sadism."
That attack robbed her of her looks, fleetingly crushed her soul and perpetually erased her faith in God.
"My mother prays five times and tells me 'if you pray before sleeping you are safe,'" she said.
But Nahar smiled ruefully. "That night also I prayed."
She asks if Allah is omnipotent why didn't he stop what happened. It was monsoon season; snakes were scuttling across flooded fields and mucky backyards.
"Why didn't Jasim and his friends' slip and fall? Why didn't a snake bite them?" she asked.
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Bijoyeta Das is a multimedia journalist currently covering South Asia. Her work is available at http://www.bijoyetadas.com
For more information:
Annual Report of Acid Survivors Foundation: