22 year old Sabana is from Diamond Harbour, West Bengal. In June 2012, she suffered from an horrific acid attack.
|Sabana,22, an acid attack fighter from Kolkata with her family|
I have always heard of acid attacks, but I never had an opportunity to meet an acid attack victim and to interact with a victim. Though I was born in Delhi, I habd been living in the comforts of the United States most of my life until this past summer when I decided to do a summer legal internship in Delhi at the Human Rights Lawyers Network. During my internship, I began working on a Supreme Court petition for an acid attack that occurred in Bihar where a Dalit girl was attacked for refusing to have relations with men that stalked and harassed her on daily basis. The case was very complicated and required much research. As I was researching for this case, I found that not only acid attacks had increased in the past twenty years, but they were mostly used against young women ranging from 15 to 20 years old. Most of these attacks occur as a form of retaliation against the girl for refusing to marry or have relations with the men.
I came upon Sabana’s case through a Hindustan Times Article. Though by this time I was used to reading horrific cases where girls were brutally attacked by guys in public places, this case was the by far was the most shocking for me. Sabana was only 22 when she was forced to drink acid by her boyfriend’s father Ilias Mondal. To ensure that that she drank the acid, they covered her mouth and held her arms. Unable to breath, Sabana fainted and then the family proceeded to assault her by ripping off her clothes and pouring acid on her thighs, stomach and on her breasts. Thinking that she had finally died, the Mondals dumped her body in the hospital under an alias name. Only one of the Mondal family members was ever arrested, and he was released after a very brief arrest. The Mondal family continues lives with impunity. Sabana’s case had reached a standstill. I could not even imagine what was going on Sabana’s mind after such a traumatic attack. Not only was she betrayed by her boyfriend’s parents, she was also betrayed by her boyfriend of four years who just stood there in silence witnessing the horrors committed against her. Now she was stuck at home because her perpetrators continued to threaten her telling her that they will ensure to throw acid on her face the next time she is seen outside. I just could not imagine the level of anger, sadness, depression a person would go through in such grave acts of injustice.
Though I was not able to further pursue the matter at that point, Sabana’s story was always in the back of mind. Eventually my time to leave Delhi started to inch closer and I started to feel that there was something incomplete. As I had a heightened interest in acid attacks, I started following this facebook page called StopacidattacksCampaign. They are a group journalists who worked to bring light to acid attacks by providing coverage of them, fundraising for them, and even provided safe homes for some. I knew that they would have expertise in working with acid attack victims. I asked my supervisor if I could pursue Sabana’s case , and she agreed readily. I then contacted another intern at HRLN Caroline Pierrey, and we both asked permission from the Director of HRLN. Luckily we received the permission we were seeking. Since I had never worked with an acid attack victim before, I felt that I needed some training to understand what type of questions to ask of a victim to ensure that I am being sensitive to her needs. So I decided to go to Stopacidattack campaign’s office as they were also located in New Delhi. When I came to their office, I met Suneet, StopAcidAttack journalist, Nisha, another acid attack victim in Delhi, and Laxmi, the acid attack victim turned activist who had had triggered the Supreme Court regulation on acid attack cases.
After speaking with Laxmi for only a brief time, I realized that Laxmi would be a valuable asset to our fact-finding as she seemed to be so knowledgeable about both the the medical and the psychological needs of acid attack victims. So I asked her to join our fact-finding and she readily agreed.
|Laxmi, an activist against acid violence, with acid attack fighter Sabana during |
a visit to Victoria, Kolkata. (Pic by: Pious Ahuza)
Traveling with Laxmi was particularly interesting as Laxmi represented the embodiment of acid attack victim’s life. Though she has appeared multiple times in press, she is still very humble. She is just like any twenty-two-year old girl with ambitions and dreams. Spending time with Laxmi gave me an insight of how much discrimination the acid attack victims face on a daily basis. Whereas I saw Laxmi as a young innocent girl who had a difficult past, I noticed that people everywhere treated Laxmi differently because of her disfigurement. Compared to other acid attack victims, Laxmi has recovered greatly, yet all I could see in people’s eyes was distrust, and ambivalence. I felt very uneasy and defensive whenever I saw anyone who gave unkind looks to Laxmi. I noticed shopkeepers would not even bargain with her or pay her any attention because of her appearance and I constantly felt the need to step in to serve as a mediator to ensure that Laxmi could get what she wanted. In India where bargaining is the norm, shopkeepers refusal to bargain or even speak properly to Laxmi illustrates the pervasiveness of the discrimination that acid attack victims must endure on a daily basis. Even when we went to Victoria Memorial, a historical site in Kolkata, there were many times double takes by guys who snickered or made remarks. Ready to write off humanity, I was tempted to jump to Laxmi’s rescue when a bystander stopped us on the train and asked Laxmi about her burns. I had secretely armed myself with a dozen insults to yell at the man if he showed even a hint of unkindness to Laxmi, but to our surprise, the man expressed that he also suffered from burns as he had burnt his legs some time back. Additionally, this strange prescribed Laxmi this hospital that treated burn victims. This incident restored my faith in humanity just in time to meet Sabana.
We reached Kalkota after a fourteen-hour train ride and met the HRLN lawyers in Kolkata. At the HRLN office, the staff was floored to meet Laxmi as she was considered a celebrity by human rights activists. After we made the introductions, we headed down to meet Sabana and pick a member from ALTAF Association that had supposedly helped Sabana. During the drive, we asked multiple questions from the Altaf Association about Sabana to have further knowledge about our case. Though we received some answers, most of them were vague and aroused my suspicion in the sincerity of the organization. After an hour and half of driving, we finally reached Diamond Harbour and I was amazed at the beauty of Diamond Harbour. It was filled with palm trees, serene water bodies, and fresh air unlike New Delhi. It was so difficult to imagine that such a beautiful place was capable of harboring people who would inflict such cruel punishments on other human beings.
To reach Sabana we had to go down a long mud road and step onto rocks to avoid wet mud. Upon entering the house, I saw a beautiful young girl who greeted us very cheerfully. Only after we sat down and we had inquired who she was, we found out that it was Sabana. To understand our confusion, you must understand that the Hindustan Times depicted Sabana in very different light and there was several factual inconsistencies leading me to really question the ethics of the journalist practices of Hindustan Times. The Hindustan Times not only misspelled Sabana’s name, they had also inaccurately displayed her siblings along with other factual errors. We had asked someone from the Hindustan times to accompany us but they refused to go with us as they had already gotten a story from her. With Nivedita serving as the translator, we began our interview. After much probing we realized that not only the Hindustani Times had made some serious factual errors, Altaf Association that had been claiming to be helping her had no knowledge of Sabana’s details including crucial details including the number of sisters that Sabana even had. To confirm my suspicion, we asked her if the Altaf Association had helped her at all, and she replied in the negative stating that they have done nothing.
In the interview, we asked her many questions regarding her attack, her context of the attack, her feelings after the attack, and videotaped her responses. Sabana was talkative, and she was generally happy to speak to us. Speaking with her, I just failed to understand how someone could have treated her so cruelly. She came of someone talkative, interactive, and approachable. Talking to her almost made me feel like I was talking to a friend whom I had known for years. As we were talking to her, the fathers offered us some coconut waters to drink and I offered mine to Sabana and she refused saying that could not actually drink it, which brought forwards the reality that Sabana had been so brutally attacked by acid that she could not even indulge in her favorite food or drink without severe restrictions. Though from her outer appearances, it may be difficult to identify her as an acid victim, but from her words it is very easy to tell that she very traumatized. In the beginning, Sabana was very forthcoming about her attack, but when she realized that no immediate action could be taken against her assailants, she became silent and withdrew from the conversation. Her response to one question truly brought forth the anger that Sabana felt towards her attacks. We asked her what did she want for her perpetrators, and she said very simply “ I want them to suffer what I have suffered.” I want the father Ilias to get hanged. When we asked about her boyfriend, Sabana greatly withdraw and became very silent. The scariest aspect of this case was the fact that her perpetrators were all so close to her house. She kept looking at the window implying to us that they were less than 2 kms from her house. Sabana rarely left her house and when she did she to go see the doctor could see them carrying on with their lives and playing carom board. They would sneer at her and make faces without a hint of remorse. Sabana continues to live in a continuous state of fear for herself and for her sister as the Mondal family has threatened Sabana’s younger sister with the same fate as Sabana. Shahjahan, Sabana’s father has has spent almost Rs. 50,000 for her medical and legal expenses, but Sabana still needs a medical surgery and none of her perpetrators are in jail, forcing Sabana to live as a prisoner in her own home.
The next day we somehow arranged doctor to meet her father to discuss the potential treatment for Sabana. We were only expecting Sabana’s father, but to our pleasant surprise Sabana also came for this appointment. Since our hotel was at least three hours by public transportation, we did not expect Sabana to make this journey. As the fact-finding was only two days long, we decided to see some historic sites in Kolkata before the doctor’s appointment. We also took this opportunity to take get to know Sabana. Since none of us actually spoke Bengali, it was very interesting. We all went to Victoria Memorial and got tickets for the outdoor park. After taking pictures in front of the Victoria Memorial, some of us separated as Sabana’s father and Caroline went another way. So it was just us girls, Sabana, Laxmi and me and though none of spoke Bengali, we were able to understand each other. We walked around, took lots of pictures, and laughed. I even remember Sabana tugging on my arm when she saw a couple making out under an umbrella, who had for failed miserably in being discreet. The park was full of couples under the trees, next to the bench. The park was filled with couples all trying to be discreet. I could just imagine that Sabana must have done the same things with her boyfriend when they were together and how much it must have hurt her that the person she trusted betrayed her in such a cruel fashion by doing nothing to protect her. He betrayed her in the truest sense. As we were walking around the Victoria Memorial Park, I could sense Sabana loosening up, and enjoying her self. I could see Sabana transforming into her own self even as we continued to take pictures around Victoria Memorial as Laxmi loved taking pictures. Sabana even decided to let her hair loose and pose for a picture, and later we even shared biscuits, few of the items that Sabana could eat. She later informed us that that was her first time going to Victoria Memorial. I left the Victoria Memorial with a sense of closeness with Sabana realizing that we were finally able to communicate and understand each other despite our language differences. When we returned to the hotel room, we waited for a while for the doctors to arrive while at the same extending our stay at the hotel by every hour as we were supposed to check out by 12 p.m. and it had already become 2 p.m. by that time.
After the meeting, Shahjahan and Sabana rushed out to make their bus as it was a long journey for them and we took our bags and rushed to the train station. It was a long ride for us ahead and we were in a 3 tier train with top bunks the whole time. I truly wish we had more time to develop our relationship with Sabana and to actually oversee the completion of her case. I am truly worried about her as she continues to live less than 2 kms away from her perpetrators and they continue to live freely. I returned to the United States with a hope that I could help Sabana but dismayed that I did not have as much time to spend with Sabana. I have started a Change.org petition, and an Indigogo petition to raise funds and awareness for Sabana’s cause. I know I cannot help Sabana physically as I am continents away, yet I will keep fighting for her in any capacity I can.
Pious Ahuja is a law student from Washington College of Law, who is helping Shabana to fight her legal battle against her attackers.
Help Financially: If you want to support Sabana finacially, you can follow this link: http://www.stopacidattacks.org/2013/11/i-will-keep-fighting-for-sabana-in-any.html
Take Action: Ask State Government to take against the criminals: http://www.change.org/petitions/ensure-justice-for-sabana-acid-attack-victim-stopacidattacks
Aljazeera Reports: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/09/acid-attacks-a-scar-india-2013927165429393354.html
Hindustan Times Reports: http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/stopacidattacks/they-emptied-an-acid-bottle-in-my-throat-says-survivor-sabina-khatun/article1-1098923.aspx
(Soon after publishing this blog by Pious, Stop Acid Attacks Campaign is launching a social media campaign for Shabana. If you want to join us in our fight against acid violence in India, especially for Shabana, please write us on stopacidattacksATgmail.com or directly contact Pious on piousaATgmail.com)