The real miracle workers fighting, and healing, Pakistan’s acid attacks
While Saving Face, a documentary on doctors helping Pakistan’s acid attack victims, recently won an Oscar, Adnan Khan discovers a much better story, featuring legitimate heroes who, unlauded, work every day to enable the afflicted to return to society with confidence
It’s odd how the faint sound of sobbing rising up from the crumpled blanket seems to dominate the room. Considering the laughter that is otherwise the mainstay of the women living at the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), the tears feel out of place. Rukhsana, knitting a blanket for her newborn son; Nusrat Parveen, busy on the sewing machine; Mumtaz and her 7-year old son, Mozam, giggling over a game they have just invented – these should set the tone in their communal living space.
But it’s Naziran Bibi’s tears that overwhelm all else. “Please, sister,” Nusrat says to her suffering friend. “It will get better. You must be patient.”
The women at ASF are accustomed to this sort of thing. They’ve all been through it themselves: the shock of having their faces melted by acid, the hopelessness that comes from having to then face themselves in the mirror. It is often too much to bear. Naziran is, in this sense, perhaps luckier than some – her attacker managed to blind her completely. But it’s also in that darkness where she now finds herself that her loneliness is absolute.
This is perhaps the most difficult struggle victims of acid attacks face. In a single, cruel stroke, they are transformed into outcasts, their lives relegated to the margins, condemned to a perpetually cloistered existence, shunned by the people around them. It was this same loneliness that ultimately drove Fakhra Younus, a Pakistani acid attack survivor in Italy, to take her own life on March 17.
Her neighbour, Haji Ali Din, reportedly told the Italian media that he had seen Younus an hour before she jumped from her sixth-storey apartment. She was crying, he said, but he dismissed it as a “daily occurrence”.
The pain behind those tears cannot be trivialised simply because of their regularity. Quite the opposite, in fact: that Younus still cried every day after more than a decade (her attack happened in 2000) is a testament to the depth of her suffering. It was the kind of pain that required solace, and the kind of solace that only the company of those who understood her plight could bring.
In Pakistan, there is no shortage of women who are suffering the way Younus did. Their struggles were broadcast to millions around the world after the short documentary Saving Face was awarded an Oscar on February 26. The co-directors of that film, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Daniel Junge, along with the film’s main character, Dr Mohammad Jawad, became instant media darlings, credited with lifting the veil from one of Pakistan’s most gruesome realities.
But Younus’s death did something else that hasn’t been reported in the world’s media: it drove home the point that acid survivors require more than medical treatment to ensure their well-being; modern medicine can do only so much to make them whole again. More importantly, it’s the psychological damage they have experienced that will be their true lifelong burden.
In the years since Younus’s attack, much has changed in Pakistan to help ease the pain of acid survivors. Saving Face was a timely story insofar as it highlighted some of the work being done to help these women. It was also a heavily dramatised and misleading story, however, relying on old and tired clichés to draw in a western audience.
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