It’s odd how the faint sound of sobbing rising up from the crumpled blanket seems to dominate the room. Considering the laughter that is otherwise the mainstay of the women living at the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), the tears feel out of place. Rukhsana, knitting a blanket for her newborn son; Nusrat Parveen, busy on the sewing machine; Mumtaz and her 7-year old son, Mozam, giggling over a game they have just invented – these should set the tone in their communal living space.
But it’s Naziran Bibi’s tears that overwhelm all else. “Please, sister,” Nusrat says to her suffering friend. “It will get better. You must be patient.”
The women at ASF are accustomed to this sort of thing. They’ve all been through it themselves: the shock of having their faces melted by acid, the hopelessness that comes from having to then face themselves in the mirror. It is often too much to bear. Naziran is, in this sense, perhaps luckier than some – her attacker managed to blind her completely. But it’s also in that darkness where she now finds herself that her loneliness is absolute.
This is perhaps the most difficult struggle victims of acid attacks face. In a single, cruel stroke, they are transformed into outcasts, their lives relegated to the margins, condemned to a perpetually cloistered existence, shunned by the people around them. It was this same loneliness that ultimately drove Fakhra Younus, a Pakistani acid attack survivor in Italy, to take her own life on March 17.
Her neighbour, Haji Ali Din, reportedly told the Italian media that he had seen Younus an hour before she jumped from her sixth-storey apartment. She was crying, he said, but he dismissed it as a “daily occurrence”.
The pain behind those tears cannot be trivialised simply because of their regularity. Quite the opposite, in fact: that Younus still cried every day after more than a decade (her attack happened in 2000) is a testament to the depth of her suffering. It was the kind of pain that required solace, and the kind of solace that only the company of those who understood her plight could bring.
In Pakistan, there is no shortage of women who are suffering the way Younus did. Their struggles were broadcast to millions around the world after the short documentary Saving Face was awarded an Oscar on February 26. The co-directors of that film, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Daniel Junge, along with the film’s main character, Dr Mohammad Jawad, became instant media darlings, credited with lifting the veil from one of Pakistan’s most gruesome realities.
But Younus’s death did something else that hasn’t been reported in the world’s media: it drove home the point that acid survivors require more than medical treatment to ensure their well-being; modern medicine can do only so much to make them whole again. More importantly, it’s the psychological damage they have experienced that will be their true lifelong burden.
In the years since Younus’s attack, much has changed in Pakistan to help ease the pain of acid survivors. Saving Face was a timely story insofar as it highlighted some of the work being done to help these women. It was also a heavily dramatised and misleading story, however, relying on old and tired clich?s to draw in a western audience.
The real story – the one that matters – is very different. In that story, the heroes are the Pakistanis themselves: the doctors and nurses dedicating their lives to acid victims, the aid workers struggling to create a space where acid survivors can begin to lead productive lives, where their attackers are punished and their sentence is proportional to the gravity of the crime they have committed.
That story is compelling in itself. Its characters, unlike the imported star of Saving Face, are the real deal: a Pakistani man, Mohammad Khan Yusufzai, living for years in Europe but searching for a way to do something for his beloved homeland; a young Frenchwoman, Valerie, an idealist and unshakeable humanist; Dr Tariq Iqbal, a burns specialist in Islamabad battling against an uninterested political establishment to have a world-class burns centre built; Dr Hamid Hassan, a plastic surgeon in Rawalpindi, donating his time to reconstruct the shattered faces of acid attack victims, free of charge. There is Balqees, working every day with the victims of acid violence, and there are the victims themselves: Rukhsana, Nusrat, Mumtaz and Mohammad Farouk.
The list of heroes could fill pages. Together, their story is an epic adventure, a tale of struggle and sacrifice, a love story and a tragedy, at times so painfully funny that you are not sure whether your tears are the product of happiness or sadness. And most importantly, it’s all true.
That story begins in Paris, as all love stories should. There, Mohammad Khan Yusufzai does what any handsome Pakistani man might do: he falls in love with a Frenchwoman. Her name is Valerie and Mohammad is as much attracted to her beauty as he is her indomitable spirit. But he is at a crossroads in his life: for some time, he has felt the urge to go home. With Pakistan in turmoil, he feels the time has come to return to his people.
“Before I even met my wife, I had decided it was time to go,” he says. “I wanted to do something for my country. But I also wanted to be up-front with this amazing woman, so I told her everything, before anything intense developed between us. I told her I had no idea what I would do in Pakistan, but that I wanted to go back.”
Valerie, of course, being a free spirit, is undaunted. “I was already interested in moving somewhere in Asia,” she says. “I had a desire to do something as well, to be one of the people making a difference. I’m no hero – there are many people like me in the world. I was simply given this opportunity. So I took it. And I trusted Mohammad completely.”
They marry and set off on their adventure.
Life in Pakistan, particularly for a woman, can be a trying affair, to say the least, but Valerie dives into it with the passion that will become her trademark. The couple first settles into Mohammad’s home village, off in the Pashtun hinterland, where most foreigners would fear to step out of a car even for a minute. But for Valerie, it is the perfect opportunity to imbibe her husband’s culture in its purest form.
From there, they move to Islamabad and then to Lahore, working different jobs but constantly on the look-out for an opportunity to fulfill the burning desire both of them feel to contribute towards the betterment of Pakistani society.
That opportunity finds them in the most unexpected of places: a beauty parlour.
“I just wanted a haircut,” Valerie says. “I went to the parlour with my son – I mean, I never go to beauty parlours, and I certainly never expected my life to change because of going to one.”
There, she encounters a woman who has been the victim of an acid attack. It’s Valerie’s first time seeing the consequences of this savage crime. Her son asks her what has happened – the victim’s face looking like it’s been melted away – but she can’t answer.
She craves an answer herself, so she speaks to another woman who is also in the parlour. This woman happens to be working with an organisation that helps women recovering from acid attacks, and the trip to the beauty parlour is part of their therapy. She tells Valerie about the horror of this crime, prevalent in South Asia but occurring throughout the world, where the victim – often a wife or a love interest – is disfigured by the man who is supposed to be her life partner, her lover and her friend, brutally scarring her for life.
This is the purpose she has been looking for. A short while later, she is working for the same organisation and is introduced to Asti – the Acid Survivors Trust International – an experience that will eventually lead her and Mohammad back to Islamabad and a life dedicated to helping acid survivors.
With the help of Asti, they set up the Acid Survivors Foundation and start work on the myriad problems facing acid survivors in Pakistan – medical, legal, social, psychological. After four years of struggle, including a financial crisis, they finally bring a bill to the Pakistani parliament that will designate acid attacks as a crime against society, pushing them into the realm of a fully indictable offence. Perpetrators would be denied the right to arbitration proceedings – a chance at getting off scot-free after paying a settlement to the victim’s family. Blood money would be off the table as a legal option.
The bill would also make acid crimes a non-bailable offense, preventing those accused from running away before they can be tried, and sets life imprisonment as the ultimate sentence. The struggle is led primarily by the very women who have been victimised – Nusrat and Zakia and Rukhsana – all with incredible stories to tell. Zakia, who is featured prominently in Saving Face, is battling in court to have her husband convicted of throwing acid on her, disintegrating half of her face. His defence is plain denial. “Some stranger did it,” he says, adding that in any case, Zakia is a whore and deserved it. This is a common defence acid throwers use in Pakistan.
For Valerie and Mohammad, the bill, if it is passed and becomes law, would be a triumph. It would acknowledge the plain truth that has driven the couple for the past four years: acid attacks are endemic in Pakistan and need to be met with the strictest of penalties.
Zakia receives treatment at the burns centre in Islamabad, under the care of its director and lead surgeon, Dr Iqbal. For years, Iqbal had lobbied the Pakistani government to build and fund the centre, finally convincing the then-president, Parvez Musharraf, to do it in 2007. The centre is now considered the best of its kind in South Asia, offering life-saving facilities to burn victims from all over Pakistan.
It is a crucial component of the acid survivors network Valerie and Mohammad have been hard at work building, the first phase in a series of interventions that ultimately lead to the victims leading productive lives.
“Acute burn care is not something anyone can do,” says Iqbal. “It takes total dedication. This is not a career path that leads to fame and fortune – no burns specialist can open up a private practice. And the psychological cost of having to deal with these kinds of traumas every day: you could make a television series about it.”
Running the only burns centre of its kind in Pakistan, Iqbal and his staff are overloaded with patients, the vast majority accidental. Zakia has received the care she needed after her attack but she is on a waiting list for reconstructive surgery.
Eventually, her case is taken up by Dr Hassan. His plastic surgery clinic in Rawalpindi is the next stage in the ASF network, where acid survivors receive the much-needed facial reconstruction that will help them re-integrate into society. Hassan works free of charge and often late into the night for what he considers his most treasured work. “Naturally I do work on people who simply want to look prettier,” he says. “But working with ASF, this is where what I do has meaning.”
For Zakia, however, things become more complicated when she is diagnosed with a serious medical condition. Her surgery will have to wait, at least until the extent of the ailment can be determined and a treatment phase completed to suppress the virus.
Meanwhile, her court case also has dragged on for months. But the mounting pressure on Pakistan’s political establishment to adopt the new acid crimes law is proving fruitful. Leading the charge are all women: Zakia’s lawyer, a female parliamentarian, Valerie and her foundation. They are backed up by the voices of the victims themselves, especially Rukhsana, who makes a plea for justice in Pakistan’s parliament that makes the heart bleed. She shames the predominantly male parliamentarians and the law is passed unanimously. The pressure is now on for the judiciary to come to a verdict in Zakia’s case. There is hope.
Eventually, they do succeed: Zakia’s husband is convicted and given a double life sentence. It should be a jubilant time, and it is, to some degree. But something else has happened in the meantime: Dr Jawad and the Saving Face film crew.
Their intervention into the lives of the acid survivors and the support network that surrounds them has caused havoc. Zakia is no longer with them. The wait time for her reconstructive surgery was too much for her, and after the filmmakers and Jawad picked her to be their star, she abandoned the ASF. There is also anger among the other acid survivors: Jawad has been abusive to the doctors, nurses and therapists who have been their lifeline, they say; he has bullied his way through their lives, they feel, and they cannot understand now why he is being lauded as a hero.
“The real heroes behind this story are the people here in Pakistan who’ve worked with us from the beginning,” says the acid attack victim Farouk, 28. “When I think about what they have done for me, I think they must be touched by the hand of God.”
“Women come here who can barely walk,” adds Nusrat, 30. “It’s the doctors and nurses and psychologists here who work miracles to help them. But now the people who shouldn’t be heroes are being held up, and the people who should be are not even mentioned. This is all upside-down.”
After Saving Face wins the Oscar, there is a growing sense of trepidation at the ASF safe house, where many women find refuge after their attacks. “We were promised by the filmmakers that this film would never receive attention in Pakistan,” Rukhsana says. “For many of us, participating in the film puts our lives in danger. Now it is all over the Pakistani news, along with our names.”
For Valerie and Mohammad, the most troubling consequence of participating in the Saving Face production process is the loss of Zakia. Had she stayed with the ASF and the doctors working with her, she would have had the support she needed to deal with the long-term healing process. Now, they fear, she is alone with her pain, much like Younus in Italy was alone and isolated before she committed suicide.
Their network is what provides hope and constant support for the victims of acid violence, the kind of support that actually saves lives. Their struggles, of course, continue. Valerie and Mohammad are now working on a bill that will force the government of Pakistan to fund more specialised burns centres and rehabilitation facilities across the country.
The women’s lives also carry on, their suffering mitigated by the work of the foundation, as does life for the doctors, nurses and therapists dedicating their time to an undervalued and under-appreciated career in acute burn care.
But for Dr Hassan, the negative consequences of Saving Face can be overcome.
“We will go on,” he says. “I’ve discussed this film in depth with colleagues in the UK, the ones who have been coming to Pakistan for years and working with us.
“We all agree that Jawad and Saving Face is just a passing inconvenience.?We will move past it, inshallah.”
Facing the facts: documentary takes liberties, leaves bitterness
There’s always a fine line between fact and fiction in documentary filmmaking,” a well-known documentary filmmaker told me after Saving Face was awarded an Oscar in February. “There are no solid rules – no generally accepted hard lines that have to be followed. No two filmmakers agree on exactly what rules you should follow and what lines you can’t cross.”
Saving Face, he added, was a constructed story, a narrative forced into existence for the sake of making a film and not for the sake of telling an accurate story. Could the filmmakers be faulted for this? Perhaps, but they couldn’t necessarily be accused of unethical behaviour, he said.
And yet, the liberties that were taken have done serious damage to Pakistan’s network of men and women working with acid attack victims. Some have argued that this is an acceptable side effect of bringing this issue to the world’s attention. But the bitterness left behind in Pakistan poses some serious questions.
Why was the featured acid attack victim Zakia taken out of her support network? According to Dr Tariq Iqbal at the Burns Centre in Islamabad, the filmmakers and Dr Mohammad Jawad “told Zakia what she wanted to hear, not what she needed to hear”.
Valerie Khan at the Acid Survivors Foundation says: “Zakia was psychologically very fragile and faced what many patients face: she expected miracles from the surgeons”.
According to multiple sources in Pakistan, Zakia was manipulated by Jawad, and her removal from Islamabad to Karachi, where Jawad performed surgery on her, was done in secret and without the knowledge of her Pakistani doctors.
The medical procedure that was performed there remains controversial. Jawad admits he never asked Iqbal for Zakia’s medical records. He refuses to comment on why. In the film, the procedure is characterised as innovative, but other plastic surgeons, in both Pakistan and the UK, say it was routine and superficial.
On what precautions were taken considering Zakia’s underling medical condition, Jawad is cryptic. “They have their protocols,” he says, referring to the lengthy screening process and treatment the doctors in Islamabad said were necessary before beginning reconstructive surgery. “They can think they’re the Harvard Medical School. I don’t care.”
Daniel Junge, the film’s co-director, insists he was not aware of any irregularities. “Dr Jawad is the expert, so we took him at his word,” he says by telephone from the UK. “I realise he caused frustrations but quite frankly, because of the language barrier, I often wasn’t aware of what was going on.”
What has happened since the Oscar victory further disturbs those who take issue with the film. Both Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the other co-director, and Jawad, riding the wave of media attention the film’s success has garnered, have said they will set up their own foundations to help acid survivors. How this helps the existing network is unclear. What’s certain is that it is the people in Pakistan who have been working for years on this issue feel that they are best placed to lead the charge.