Finding Her Voice: An Acid Attack Victim Fights Back
Hanifa Nakiryowa's life changed forever after becoming a victim of a disfiguring acid attack.
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.”
Nakiryowa stands in front a group of high school students, telling her story of gender violence as part of a program put on by the World Affairs Council, held at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead.
Her arms slice through the air like a conductor as she punctuates the shocking details of her past in her soft and lilting voice.
“I will tell you a little about my personal story,” she says. “Someone threw acid on my face.”
The students stare back, wide-eyed, at a woman who has black scarring around her eyes, on her left cheek and below her mouth. Only her right cheek is unscathed. She knows her story is a hard one to hear.
“When I talk about acid attacks, I get faces like yours, because most people don’t know what I am talking about,” she says.
Her audiences are often surprised to learn that acid violence is on the rise, especially in countries such as India, Uganda, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia and the United Kingdom — and there are some cases in the United States, she says. At least 1,500 acid attacks are carried out each year worldwide, according to the Acid Survivors Trust International in London. But Nakiryowa believes that statistic is low. “Most victims don’t report it,” she says.
The acid splattered on Nakiryowa’s face, a concentrated form of the acid found in car batteries, is cheap and easy to buy off the street in Uganda. Yet acid is a deadly weapon — she compares it to guns in the United States.
She didn’t go into too many gory details with her young audience, but the teenagers were moved by her story. Maya Berg, then 16 and a sophomore at Avonworth High School, said, “It’s amazing she survived and that she has the strength and courage to talk about it despite risks to herself.”
After the presentation, Nakiryowa takes off her glasses and squints. A red line streaks her left eye. Her eyelid has contracted, and her few remaining lashes scrape her eye, leading to eye irritation and migraines. She will need another surgery on her eyelid — just one of the never-ending trips to the operating room, aftershocks of the crime.
Her boss, Karen Wolk Feinstein, the president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, noticed her discomfort a few days earlier. “Go to the doctor,” she urged.
“No, I have deadlines to meet,” she said. As a global health associate for the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, Nakiryowa works with hospitals, doctors and others on women’s health issues for immigrants and minorities. She will wait another two weeks before undergoing surgery.
Feinstein is amazed by Nakiryowa’s ebullience and her determination. “Life has not been good to Hanifa. But she believes the world is good. She celebrates the people who help her.
“Most of us have such easy lives, and we complain about the dumbest things. ‘My eyes are getting baggy.’ ‘It’s hard to work during allergy season.’ Even though she has suffered so much, Hanifa has such a benign outlook. She’s never gloomy.”
As Nakiryowa puts it, “I believe in one step at a time. That is how I generate gratitude.”
But before she could reach that place of gratitude, she had to forsake the life she knew.
She knew she had made a terrible mistake almost as soon as she got married in 2005. He was her university professor who had pursued her. She wasn’t in love, but her family urged her to get married.
Nakiryowa said he was controlling and abusive, stalking her, following her every move. “He would hit me for talking to my male friends. He would hit me for not picking up my phone [when he called].”
She left him when she was three months pregnant with her first child, but her family convinced her to return to him for the sake of the baby. She felt helpless and dependent upon him.
Determined to support herself, she earned a master’s degree in economics from the University of Nairobi, a move that would allow her to secure a job as a monitoring and evaluation specialist with UNICEF. Ironically, she had started to speak out against human rights violations in Uganda and gender-based violence.
In August 2011, about three months before the attack, she left her husband for good and moved into her own apartment — a taboo in Ugandan society as a whole and especially forbidden in the country’s Muslim community. “I just couldn’t do it anymore,” she says.
Though the police arrested her ex-husband after the acid attack, the legal system treated the case like a farce. She said the prosecutor was unfamiliar with the specifics of her case. The defense asked her for a witness to the crime — an impossible demand. She eventually told the prosecutor, “Don’t call me again, because you are traumatizing me beyond what I can handle.” The judge dismissed the case — something Nakiryowa saw again and again with victims of acid violence.
The young man who threw the acid wasn’t arrested. “He disappeared. I never saw him before. I never saw him afterwards.” Nakiryowa says it is common for people who want to disfigure someone with acid to hire an attacker “who desperately needs money. For my ex-husband, it was a tactic to clear himself so he could say he never did it.”
Eight months after her face was burned, she made another momentous decision — one that brought another wave of condemnation from her community.
She removed her veil. As Nakiryowa saw it, she was coming out as an acid victim, no longer hiding her disfigurement behind cloth. “I had to show the world my face. I knew I would face insults.”
But she didn’t expect the depths of the vitriol. People told her she deserved to be burned because she was a disobedient wife.
Throughout her lengthy recovery, she gained strength by visiting and comforting other victims of acid attacks and their children. She began her outreach while still receiving treatment at Mulago Hospital. While there, she met a acid attack victim who was the mother of four children; the mother ultimately died.
Nakiryowa was asked to help the children go back to school, but she couldn’t afford it. Through a journalist friend, she brought attention to their story during the 2012 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. On Christmas Eve that year, the children were taken into the care of Bright Kids Uganda, a home for youth whose lives were disrupted by civil war, gender violence, poverty and abandonment and whose parents died from HIV.
In 2013, Victoria Nalongo Namusisi, founder of the children’s home, introduced Nakiryowa to a Pittsburgh couple doing volunteer work in Uganda. Pauline Greenlick, a documentary filmmaker and part time adjunct at Carlow University, and her husband Louis Picard, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, had raised money for Bright Kids Uganda through their nonprofit, ASA Social Fund for Hidden Peoples.
When Greenlick met Nakiryowa, she knew she would have a prominent role in her documentary on acid violence. “She is the face of gender violence,” she says.
On June 25, 2014, Nakiryowa and a group of burn victims met for the first meeting of CERESAV, and Greenlick was there to capture it on film. The retreat was held at Banana Village, a hotel near the children’s home. Nakiryowa implored the women to reclaim their lives and not live in shame hiding behind their veils, scarves and masks. Facing one another, they stood and sang Ugandan songs. “After an hour, they took their scarves off,” says Greenlick. The tagline of CERESAV became “Unveiling the Scars.”
Knowing of her experience with UNICEF and her desire to rebuild her life outside Uganda, Picard suggested that Nakiryowa apply to the international development program at GSPIA to pursue her second master’s degree, this one in international development and human security studies. The program would allow her to delve further into human rights violations and gender violence. “It was a perfect fit,” Picard says.
Nakiryowa was accepted to the program and awarded the H. J. Heinz Fellowship. But before she could begin a new life, she had to resolve an even bigger concern — breathing.
Rodeo Drive is a world away from the burns unit at Mulago Hospital.
The ritzy Los Angeles neighborhood is filled with women who have been surgically enhanced into “ideal” shapes and dressed in couture fashions. The Burns Unit is filled with Ugandan women who have been disfigured beyond recognition beneath their white bandages.
The first time she came to Los Angeles for treatment in January 2015, Nakiryowa thought of the movie “Pretty Woman” as she kept walking past “60-year-olds who looked like 20-year-olds.”
Here, she walked inside the offices of Dr. David Alessi, plastic surgeon to the stars and the man who would change her life by changing her face. He and his wife, Deborah, are the founders of Face Forward, a nonprofit that provides help to victims of domestic abuse and violence. After learning of the program on the internet, Nakiryowa applied and was accepted.
At that point in her recovery, her biggest problem was breathing — she had lost most of her nose and could only breathe by putting tubes in her nostrils for three years. Dr. Alessi did surgery after surgery, taking cartilage from her ribs to rebuild her nose. The pain got worse before it got better, but the first time she breathed without tubes in her nostrils, it was a moment of pure joy.
“You are able to breathe in a ton of air and you’re like, ‘Yes, I have control over this oxygen that I am breathing in,’” she says. Another surgeon did a procedure on her eye. She had also had work done on her mouth. Her smile, the one that people had always described as radiant, came back, though the left side of her mouth still droops.
Dr. Alessi said she was selected for the program because of her refusal to hide in shame.
“She came from Uganda, where, unfortunately, these attacks are too common. Politicians will publicly say they are horrible, but the women are expected to retreat from society. Hanifa had a Rosa Parks moment. She was not going to move to the back of the bus,” he says. “She was not going to retreat from society.”
After her L.A. transformation, Nakiryowa flew back to Uganda — it was time for her daughters, who had been living with a caretaker, to join her in Pittsburgh. Now 8 and 12, the girls are happily adjusted to their new lives. The family of three attends a non-denominational Christian church. Nakiryowa describes herself as spiritual. “I read both books, the Bible and Quran.”
But some parts of Uganda are impossible to recreate here — the eternal sunshine, the fresh food coming straight from the family farm, her family — and these are the things she misses most.
After two years apart from her family, she was thrilled when her mother arrived in Pittsburgh in March to stay for six months. Her mother witnessed Nakiryowa’s graduation from Pitt on April 26 with her second master’s degree. She was such an exceptional student that she received The Iris Marion Young Award for Political Engagement as well as the Sergeant James “Rip” Taylor Award for exemplified public service.
Telling her mother to bundle up before she stepped into the chilly Pittsburgh air, the acid victim-turned-international-activist took her mother’s arm and said: “Welcome to America, Mummy.” Then two weeks later, she introduced her mother to snow on the first day of spring. “Welcome to America, Mummy,” she said with a laugh.
These moments are the little things she no longer takes for granted. Before she landed her job at the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, she fretted about finding a job in Pittsburgh. Most of the jobs in her field were in Washington, D.C.
She stood at the sink thinking, “What is going to happen to me after I graduate in December?”
Her second-grade daughter entered the kitchen and said, “What’s the matter, Mommy?”
“Nothing,” she replied.
“But you look worried,” her daughter said.
Then it hit Nakiryowa. Her daughter could read her face again. That was a transformation.
Frequent contributor Cristina Rouvalis will take part in a “Story of Hope” conversation with Nakiryowa during a fundraiser supporting the Center for Rehabilitation of Survivors of Acid and Burns Violence on Nov. 7 at the Allegheny HYP Club Downtown. Tickets and more information can be found at ceresav.wedid.it/events/52.