- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Behind her veil, Hanifa found silence, not peace.

Then she met other victims, their faces and limbs - like hers - maimed, their will to live fading or gone.

“I decided that I could not keep silent,” said Hanifa Nakiryowa, 33, an acid attack survivor. “Yes, there are moments when I feel a lot of pain and I close myself behind doors and cry. But … maybe it happened to me because I have the strength to speak against it.”

The attack occurred in 2011 outside her estranged husband’s home in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.

Hanifa, who’s from Uganda, had divorced him. He was controlling and abusive and did not want her to study or work or have opinions that contradicted his, she said. So she left him. They had two daughters together; he called that day and told Hanifa to pick them up.

She knocked on the door. Inside, she heard footsteps, but no one answered.

Then a young man she did not know appeared and threw something at her face.

“On contact, it’s cold. But in seconds, you feel the burning, as if you’ve been thrown in a pool of fire,” Hanifa recalled. “You burn in invisible flames.”

Witnesses begged her husband to take her to a hospital. When he finally opened the door, he said he could not find his car keys, Hanifa said.

A neighbor rushed her to the nearest hospital. She would stay for many months.

In countries where women are denied basic human rights, acid attacks are disturbingly common, said Louis Picard, a University of Pittsburgh Professor of Public and International Affairs and African Studies. Hanifa is one of 480 documented cases in Uganda.

Attackers intend to dehumanize their victims, to mark them as disobedient and maim them so grotesquely that they no longer find acceptance in society, he said. Victims often are shunned, even by their families, and become street beggars or commit suicide.

No one was arrested in Hanifa’s attack.

At first, Hanifa did not comprehend the extent of her injuries. Most victims don’t.

“You don’t see the effect right away,” she said. “It surfaces over time. You think the dead skin is going to shed off and you will heal, but it begins to eat up the body. Experiencing that, seeing your body parts fall off when you begin to get hope that you are healing, it is so traumatizing. Many patients give up.”

Months after the attack, Hanifa looked into a mirror.

What she saw almost made her give up, too.

“Parts of my nose had fallen off,” she recalled. “My nostrils were so melted and contracted that I could not breathe. That’s the first time I broke down and I cried. My family tried to calm me down, and all I could tell them was, ‘Leave me alone, I need to cry this out.’ … I cried for a long time.

“But at the end of it, I told myself: Crying is not going to help me. I need to think out my next step if this is what I have to deal with the rest of my life.”

That is when she decided to show the world her face - a face she shares with thousands of others.

First, she founded the Centre for Rehabilitation of Survivors of Acid and Burns Violence in Uganda. Next, while seeking help for the children of acid attack mothers, she began working with Bright Kids Uganda, an orphanage. She met Picard and his wife, Paula Greenlick, there. Impressed with Hanifa’s passion, Picard persuaded her to seek a master’s degree at Pitt in Human Security and International Development. She applied and was accepted. Her courses begin in the fall.

Hanifa’s reconstructive surgeries - 18 so far, including a recent procedure in which doctors removed pieces of rib cartilage to reconstruct her nostrils - are paid for by the Beverly Hills nonprofit Face Forward, which helps victims of domestic violence and cruelty.

Picard and Greenlick are helping her adjust to life in Pittsburgh. They organized a fundraiser set for June 21 to help pay her tuition and living costs.

In Uganda, in California, in her new hometown of Pittsburgh, Hanifa is aware that people are looking at her. They see her hands, her arms, her neck and her face, and they can’t help but stare.

It doesn’t bother her.

Hanifa needs no veil.

“This is me. This is my face,” she said, smiling through her disfigurement. “The world has to get used to this because I am not afraid.”





Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com

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