Little justice for Colombia’s acid victims
Acid attacks are on the rise in Colombia.
In the first four months of this year, 19 women have been attacked with acid in Colombia – more than during the same period in 2011.
Gloria Piamba, 26, is one of those victims.
As I wait on a street corner for Piamba to turn up on a recent drizzly day in a gritty residential neighourhood in central Bogota, she is an easy figure to spot.
Piamba emerges from a government-run women’s refuge with her head wrapped in a shawl and a young son in tow.
She wears a mask over her half-burned mouth, a tube up her nose to prevent it from concaving, and a patch over her disfigured left eye, which was left with partial vision.
We sit in a nearby café for several hours where she tells me with candour and clarity about her abusive relationship with her ex-boyfriend with whom she had a son.
The first thing Piamba does is to show me several photos.
“That was me. That’s what I looked like before,” says Piamba.
It’s a snapshot of a smiley and pretty woman of indigenous descent with long shiny black hair looking directly at the camera.
She tells me how her face, and life, changed forever one Christmas Eve two years ago.
She accuses her abusive ex-boyfriend of dousing her face with acid as she and her brother walked down a busy street in downtown Bogotá. However, he maintains his innocence.
During the five-month period from when she left him until the acid attack, Piamba had an ominous feeling that he would strike again.
“He stalked me. That day when he attacked me, he had been following me all day,” she says.
“He used to tell me, ‘If you’re not mine then you’re nobody else’s’.”
Piamba waited an hour at a hospital emergency ward before receiving any medical care.
The delay gave the acid ample time to devour her skin and reach deeper into the bone tissue, leaving her with third and fourth-degree burns.
“It felt like my skin, my face was falling off. My eyes were moving in and out like ping pong balls from the pain,” Piamba says.
Doctors and activists attribute many acid attacks to jealousy and revenge on the part of husbands, boyfriends and former lovers.
But there’s a glimmer of hope for Colombia’s acid victims.
Under Colombian law, acid attacks are defined as personal injury, a crime that carries a maximum six-year prison sentence, with criminals sometimes allowed to serve their jail sentences under house arrest.
The recent spate of attacks has prompted a group of lawmakers to introduce a bill that would result in tougher punishments of up to 20 years in prison for those convicted of carrying out acid attacks. It would also introduce stricter controls on the sale of acid and better medical care for acid victims.
Perhaps the most haunting part of my conversation with Piamba, aside from her seeing her almost unrecognizable deformed mouth, was when she told me about the reaction of her six-year-old son, who is half listening to our conversation as he plays with a straw.
I ask Piamba whether her son knows she blames his father for the attack.
“When my son saw me for the first time after the attack he told me, ‘Mummy, let’s kill this person who did this to you’. He said, ‘When I’m older and have a job, I’ll buy you special cream to heal your face’,” Piamba says, her voice cracking.
“At first I first told him I’d fallen over in the street but the psychologist encouraged me to tell the truth. I don’t want my son growing up with hatred so I’ve told him his father thought he was throwing cold water on my face but he made a mistake and it turned out to be hot water.”
Despite her strong spirit, Piamba tells me she has contemplated suicide, hitting rock bottom during a month long stay in hospital.
“The doctors told me to forget about the face I once had,” Piamba says, who has undergone five facial reconstructive surgeries so far. “Those words almost killed me. I thought about jumping off the 7th floor of the hospital.”
Before the attack, Piamba scraped a living as a seamstress and street vendor selling drinks and snacks.
Her main concern now is getting a job to provide for her son and pay rent.
“Who’s going to give me a job looking like this?” she asks.
“And even if I get one, what employer will put up with me having to miss work because of medical appointments and time off for more surgery.”
On top of that, she can only stay at the women’s refuge where she is living with her son for up to four months. In several weeks time, she will have to find another place to live.
What keeps Piamba clinging on to hope and life? Her faith in God and her son, she says.
“I’m alive because of my son. I couldn’t bear to leave him alone.”
Photo credit: Acid victim Gloria Piamba photographed in Bogota, Colombia, May 2012. TRUSTLAW/Anstasia Moloney