Monday February 8 2016

An acid attack could not stop her from graduating

Linnetti Kirungi on her graduation day last

Linnetti Kirungi on her graduation day last month. Inset, Kirungi shows the scars she sustained from the acid attack. Photos by Amos Ngomwoya 

By Amos Ngomwoya

My name is Linnetti Kirungi and I am 24 years old. I was born to Zerubaberi Ruboha and Betty Ruboha in Buhimba, Hoima District.
When I joined university, I was excited because I was closer to attaining my goal of being a graduate.
But this nearly changed three years ago. When I remember the morning of January 11, 2012, I shudder and become motionless because that is the day I almost lost my life.
I was in my first year at Makerere University where I had been admitted for a bachelor’s degree in social sciences. The day began like any other. I prepared to leave for the university campus as usual because I had my end of first semester examinations.

How it all changed
I left my place of residence in Kasubi and proceeded to East Coast Hostel, Nakulabye, to meet my friend Hannifah Namirembe. We were supposed to go to the library for a discussion.
On our way to campus, I noticed someone following me but I was not bothered because I knew it was rush hour and people were heading to work. This person followed us from East Coast Hostel.

When we reached Makerere Institute of Social Development (MSD), my instinct told me to turn back and look at the person following me. When I turned, I saw a man with a bucket and in a twinkling of an eye, he poured liquid on me before taking off.
He targeted my face but thank God it was splashed on my left ear and the weave I wore shielded me from more serious injuries. The attacker was putting on a black jacket, a cap and dark sunglasses. I thought it was urine and I actually called my friend who was a few steps ahead of me.

Shortly afterwards, I saw my dress getting torn. My body started itching and I became stiff. When my friends realised it was acid, they tried following the man in vain. I was now naked because my clothes were in tatters. I started wailing but no one came to my rescue.
All the shops and kiosks that I entered on Sir Apollo Kaggwa Road asking for water to cool the burns, refused to help me because no one wanted to be a suspect. As this went on, the pain also intensified. There was traffic jam and both motorists and pedestrians simply looked on as I scampered around. Most of them thought I had run mad.

My friend Hannifah, however, convinced one motorist to drive us to Mulago hospital. When we got there, doctors tried to give me painkillers but nothing helped. One doctor suggested that they pour water on me and that is the last thing I remember.
When I woke up, my bedside was filled with journalists. The doctor told me I had passed out for eight hours. I was alone because my friend had had to sit an exam.

I requested the doctors to take me to campus for my exam but they declined. I had left my phone in my room. It is my friend who informed my parents about the attack. When my parents heard the news, they both collapsed. It is a neighbour who rushed them to hospital after finding them lying helpless on the floor.
When my uncle and his wife came to see me at the hospital, they couldn’t hold back their tears. Later on, my classmates said the lecturer would bring the exam but I knew they were just bluffing.

While in intensive care, my body started turning black. The doctors started cutting off the burnt parts of flesh. In the process, part of my left ear had to be cut off. The pain I experienced was unbearable and that time I wanted to die. Three days later, I was taken to the burns ward. At that time my eyes could barely open because they were swollen.
I suspected my ex-boyfriend. We had been in a relationship for two years but he was too protective and jealous. During my Senior Six vacation, I got a temporary job but he would call and text my bosses telling them to tread carefully since I was his wife.

When I joined university, he told me to go and stay at his place, stressing that other men would take advantage of me. When he insisted, I told him to first meet my parents but he declined. The day before I was attacked, he came to university, asking me to move to his place but I maintained my stand. So when I was attacked, he was the first suspect.
My parents reported the case to Wandegeya Police Station and he was arrested.
However, when police came to take my statement at the hospital, I was told there was no evidence to pin him. As such, he was released.
My parents tried to follow up the case but eventually gave up.

Life after the attack
While in Mulago hospital, I was miserable. Whenever I looked in the mirror, the fresh burns were scary. I was in so much pain and I did not think I would ever return to society.
I had missed exams and this meant applying for a dead year. My mother always fainted whenever she looked at my disfigured body and this made me feel bad. They even brought a priest but I chased him away.
Doctors counselled me and that is how I was able to cope. They introduced me to Hannifah Nakiryowa, (a lecturer at Makerere University then) who was also an acid attack survivor. She told me to remain strong by praying to God, saying that I was looking better than her. This comforted me and we became friends. We even visited each other on the ward.

After eight months, I was discharged but my body was terribly scarred. I told my parents that I wanted to go back to school but they advised me to change universities, something I didn’t agree with. I had got a dead year and I was now supposed to begin afresh.
My parents accepted to take me back to Makerere University but life as I knew it was different. By going back to school, I wanted to show those who had attacked me that even though they attacked the body, I still had the brain to think. It’s from this point that I developed interest in becoming an advocate of acid attack victims.

While at school, I would behave like a Muslim by wearing long clothes and veiling my head. I feared associating with my classmates, especially during discussions.
I one time told a friend about my ordeal but she stopped moving with me because she suspected that I could be attacked again and so she feared that she could be attacked as well. When I realised, I started deceiving whoever asked me that I had been involved in a nasty accident.
When the results for the previous semester were released, mine did not appear. It bothered me and I thought of abandoning school. However, there is one lecturer at the School of Social Sciences Gordon Ainebyoona who helped me out.

He explained to me that my results went missing because my registration number was different since I was supposed to be in second year and that because of the dead year I had applied for, the registration number remained the same, something that caused my results to go missing.
He helped me trace for the marks and I finally got them. He became more of a parent as he would call and counsel me. He could, at times, advise me on the course units to offer. I really thank him for making my stay at the university good. I continued with my studies until I graduated last month with a second Class Upper Degree in Social Sciences.

When I went back home, I wasn’t comfortable because I always thought of being in the company of fellow survivors. I told my mother and she was happy about it. I came back to Kampala and I am now the office administrator at the Centre for Rehabilitation of survivors of Acid and burns violence (CERESAV) in Najjanankumbi.
This organisation was established in 2012 to address acid violence in Uganda. Its aim is to raise awareness of acid violence in Uganda and internationally advocating for change in laws on the sale and distribution of acid.

A call to action
I call upon well-wishers to support us as we struggle to raise awareness about acid violence. Government must also offer a helping hand to us by coming up with the acid law that would help mitigate acid violence. For instance, Parliament last year signed the Toxic Chemicals Prohibition Control Bill 2015 and President Museveni has signed it into law.
However, there is no section in this law which talks about acid. It generalises acid among other toxic substances. This isn’t fair because it leaves acid survivors without justice. Government must come up with the law to ensure that all traders who sell acid have licenses.

The Uganda National Bureau of Standards must also come up with stringent measures to ensure that the sale of acid is controlled. What hurts is that government has not provided legal services to acid survivors yet this would help them get justice. Even in Mulago hospital, they never bother to help the acid victims.
My message to the acid victims is that they should not lose hope but rather join hands and we fight for our rights. I lost my ear and my skin but my brain is still working and I must fight for the rights of those who have been affected and I know God will answer my prayer.

LEGAL PERSPECTIVE
Last year, Parliament passed the Toxic Chemicals Prohibition Control Bill 2015 and early this year, the president signed it into law.
The Bill seeks to give effect to the convention on the prohibition of the development, Production, Stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and on their destruction; to designate the National Authority; provide for inspections, searches and enforcement; licensing and permits in relation scheduled chemicals and for related matters.

Acid violence is a criminal offence punishable under the Penal Code Act Cap 220. In 2009, results from a survey carried out by Acid Survivors Foundation Uganda (ASFU) on acid attacks indicated that acid is readily available in retail shops in Kampala and is traded as any other commodity.
The highest cause is believed to be relationships, with women to women attacks being the most prevalent while most men are attacked due to business rivalry and property disputes. The other cause is mistaken identity.

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