By Flora Aduk
Flora Aduk recalls her meeting with acid attack survivor Juliet Bukirwa; a remarkable woman who refused to be silenced by those who expected her to tolerate mistreatment and abuse simply because of her gender. 8 years later, Juliet is living life on her terms and displaying incredible resilience in her recovery and despite the obstacles she has faced as a result of her attack.
She hesitates when I ask if we can meet at Garden City in Kampala over the phone.
“I don’t think I know the place, but I’ll find it, just direct me”.
When I spend time with Juliet Bukirwa, I realise that even from that brief conversation, her resilient nature shone through. At just 25 years old, Bukirwa has been to hell and back but you could never tell from her cheeky laugh or animated conversation. Even her hairstyle covers the effect of an unthinkable trauma.
Bukirwa survived an acid attack, aged just 17.
“People always stare at the scars as if waiting for an explanation. It used to bother me, but not anymore. Even my children used to fear me but now they are used to my appearance”. The memory of that night is painful, but because of her resilience, her story has become one of hope. “I could have died, but I didn’t, it is all in God’s hands. I simply accept myself as I am,” she says.
Her infectious hope engulfs me as I listen. “It happened in 2007. My ex-boyfriend, father of my eldest daughter, poured acid on me one night after failing to enter my house and force himself on me,” Bukirwa narrates. The couple had met when she was just 14, within two years Bukirwa was pregnant, had dropped out of school and moved into his parents’ home in Nateete, a Kampala suburb. Shortly after she gave birth, the relationship turned violent as he sought every opportunity to beat her, especially when she refused sex. “He started cheating and when I complained he would beat me. His mother told me to do what I had come to do as a wife”.
Bukirwa refused to accept a lifetime of misery, she left to seek refuge at an aunt’s place in the same suburb, then rented a room close by and even enrolled into school. Life was hard but she survived, many times doing odd jobs and even singing to make money. She chuckles as she mentions that she was once a backup singer to Ugandan star Eddy Kenzo.
A mother’s instinct later caused her to contact her ex-partner. “I needed to see my child, I had left her at his parents’ house. I visited often though never found him at home. His friends and neighbours started telling him that I looked lovely, wondering how he could leave me,” she says.
He started pursuing her. Once, he forced his way into her house and tried to rape her but she escaped, he often threatened her and once used their daughter as leverage, hoping she would grant him audience. She still refused. He attacked her the next day.
Bukirwa didn’t have electricity in her one-roomed home in Nateete. She was making her way in darkness to the outdoor latrine when suddenly she felt a harsh sting on her face, neck and arms. “The pain is indescribable, probably a snake bite comes close,” she says. She screamed and ran, banging on her neighbours’ doors but no one came to her aid. That is all she recalls of that night. What is strong in her memory is waking up to the realisation that her left eye and ear had simply melted away, her face, neck and arms bearing huge scars. “Maybe one day I will have surgery that can remove these scars,” she says, as she shows me the effects of the acid burns. A side fringe covers what is left of her eye, behind the hair is just a pinkish hollow.
Without any further query from me, she adds “I think I can also get a new eye,” demonstrating how used she is to the natural train of thought of those receiving the explanation of her scars. “It really hurts when it’s cold and sleeping used to be a challenge since it can’t close,” she adds. I ask what became of her attacker. “I forgave him and left all to God,” she says. Her attempts to report his past violence came to nothing. The police asked her to pay $6 for a medical report, which she couldn’t afford.
After six months in hospital, Juliet lost hope of pursuing the case. However, at Uganda’s National Referral Hospital, Mulago, she met people from Acid Survivors Foundation Uganda, who helped her access treatment and counselling. She also developed skills in bead making. “Bukirwa’s zeal for life is what has kept her going. She is one of our positive cases,” says Hilda Birungi, Programme Manager.
“Life is hard for a survivor. Finding employment is hard. The attack removes your right to love and be loved unconditionally. People discriminate against you”. Her second attempt at love two years after her attack left her a single mother when her second daughter, now 5, was just an infant.
As a survivor she has a conviction to speak out, to be a counsellor and an advocate because she believes only a survivor can know the depth of the pain. “If only I could get an opportunity to be a representative” she says, with hope in her voice. She recently failed to get a visa to attend a conference for Acid Attack Survivors in the USA.
Her advice to survivors of violent crime is “don’t give up … you were able to break through. You may struggle but you can change your destiny.” If you are in a violent relationship, Bukirwa stresses “don’t sit back and ignore the violence, do something. When you separate, cut off all links for you never know their intentions.”
I thanked her for her time and her honesty and left. On my way home, I reflected on what could drive someone to such an extreme expression of hatred, and how many people guilty of such crimes continue to walk amongst us because of a failure of the justice system.
If your life has been affected by acid violence, or you are concerned for your safety in this regard, please contact http://www.acidviolence.org for support and advice.