Finding Her Voice: An Acid Attack Victim Fights Back
Hanifa Nakiryowa's life changed forever after becoming a victim of a disfiguring acid attack.
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photos by martha rial
Sometimes, Hanifa Nakiryowa forgets what she used to look like. When she looks in the mirror, the reflection she sees bears little resemblance to the face she once recognized as her own.
On Dec. 11, 2011, a split-second event became the dividing line in her life.
That’s the day the young mother from Kampala, Uganda walked into her ex-husband’s apartment building to pick up her two young daughters. In the lobby, she smiled politely at a young man she didn’t recognize. It was the last time both corners of her mouth would turn up evenly into a smile.
“Hello,” she said as she passed by.
The young man greeted her. Then he reached behind him, grabbing a jug full of liquid, and threw it at her face. She felt a flash of cold and then an excruciating burn. It was like hellfire.
She didn’t know it at the time, but she’d just been doused in concentrated sulfuric acid. It devoured her face and then moved on to eat her clothing and the skin off her chest, arms and shoulder.
Hearing her screams, residents of the surrounding apartments rushed to her aid, pounding on her ex-husband’s door. When he finally answered, they told him to drive her to the hospital. He said he couldn’t find his keys, she recalled, so one of the neighbors drove her instead.
“He let me melt in front of him,” she would say later.
Before she became an acid attack victim, Nakiryowa had never even heard of the crime. But in Mulago Hospital, she met other women and a few men who were similarly disfigured by acid, battered by a crime that stripped them of self-worth. Many would return to society as outcasts, shunned and shamed into silence.
From her hospital bed, bandaged like a mummy, Nakiryowa too wanted to hide. “How do I survive in a world where everyone is running away from me like I’m a monster? What kind of life is that?”
Then she thought of her two young daughters and vowed to reclaim herself, disfigured or not. Looking in the mirror on the wall of the hospital room, she saw her mottled, puffy face for the first time. Peeking through the bandages, her eyes stared back. It was still her. “If I can see myself, I can do anything. All I need on this face is my eyes.”
That resolve got her through the harrowing recovery process — for several years, she flew back and forth from Uganda first to London and later to Los Angeles, going through a total of 38 surgeries on her face.
Before she finally relocated her life and family in Pittsburgh, she left a legacy in Uganda — a nonprofit called The Center for Rehabilitation of Survivors of Acid and Burns Violence (CERESAV) that raises awareness about acid violence while supporting burn patients through recovery. The group will also support victims by reducing stigma and advocating to change laws surrounding the sale of acid.
The 36-year-old activist understands too well the despair that follows victims of acid attacks — even after the wounds have healed, victims face isolation, anger and injustice in the legal system. As Nakiryowa described it, it’s like you’re the walking dead. “They don’t kill you, but they kill you.”