Bangladesh ranks among the top three countries in the world for the number of acid attack incidents it witnesses. From May 1999 to December 2010, there have been an alarming 2,433 acid attacks, with 3,114 survivors. I used to regularly read about these barbaric acts in newspapers. Then in 2005, I got a call inviting me to a programme organised by the Acid Survivors Foundation. I was hesitant initially, unsure of how I could approach acid attack survivors for their photographs. And when I entered the hall and saw so many beautiful women with disfigured faces, I was shocked. It was then that I decided to work on this issue. My first intention was merely to raise awareness of it through my photographs. I feel its important to show such photos to the masses who don’t come to galleries, so they can see what they are doing to their sisters, their mothers, their daughters and their wives. But my response to the victims, too, changed as I worked on the project. After spending so much time with the survivors, and getting closer to them, I now look at them as human beings, not just as victims.
(As told to Kruti Y)
Runa with her two-month-old son, Nafiz. She was attacked with acid in 1997 after she refused a love proposal.
The girl in this photograph is Samina Begum. I met her in 2005 at the end of a gathering organised by the Acid Survivors Foundation. This was an awareness-raising campaign cum a cultural festival where many acid attack survivors had gathered. On the last day, the survivors were taken to the guesthouse of an NGO. It was here that Samina walked up to me and asked if I would take her photograph. I was amazed. She was such a beautiful woman, despite the disfigured face. Even before I could ask her how she would like to be photographed, she asked me to take her image next to flowers. She led me to a garden full of beautiful red roses, stood beside the flowers and insisted that I take her photo with them.
Samina was attacked in 2000 after she rejected a marriage proposal. One night, when she was sleeping at her home in her village, someone threw acid on her. Since they lived in a village, she didn’t get any treatment for her burn injuries until she was taken to Dhaka.
The culprit was eventually caught, but at that time, the law was vague about acid attacks. This, as well as her family’s lack of financial means to pursue the case and lack of evidence, resulted in the criminal walking free.
Samina must be 28 years old now. Maybe she is married, maybe not. I don’t know. But I will remember Samina as a beautiful woman, courageous and full of energy. I was moved by the enormous mental strength she possessed.
Khodeja Begum was attacked at her home late one night in 2001 while she was sleeping along with her children. She suffered terrible burns, lost an eye and was left to live with a completely disfigured face. Her daughter, just 18 days old at the time, too survived, but again with severe burns.
The miscreants who entered Khodeja’s home that night had actually come for her husband. It was about a land dispute with his brothers. He wasn’t at home that night and was thus saved.
I met Khodeja Begum during a conference. Her face was frightening. It was almost unbearable to look at for more than a minute. Severe disfiguration such as this often leaves victims with psychological problems, and they also often become outcasts. But when I asked Khodeja if I could take her photograph, she readily posed. She later said that in the village, she didn’t leave her house much since people would get scared looking at her. But she was lucky all the same that her family continued to stay with her.
The case of Rita Rani Das is very different from that of the many other women who have been victims of acid attacks. The usual reasons are land disputes, refusal of marriage proposals, rejection of sexual overtures, dowry and revenge. Rita was attacked because she had converted to Islam in order to marry a Muslim. In 2006, her previous husband attacked her because she had changed her religion.
When I met her in 2007 at a convention for survivors, she was afraid to even talk, at first. After the attack, she had been ostracised by her community. While her family refused to accept her, even the man for whom she had converted abandoned her.
But as I spoke to her, she slowly relaxed. And when I asked if I could take her photograph, she posed with her hand on her head, as this showed the burns on her hand, neck and a part of her face. She said that she wanted to show people what a human being did to another human being.