This past Monday, I attended an event on campus that I had looked forward to ever since summer vacation. It was a tearful event, with many pauses and moments of silent reflection– you’ll learn why soon. Until then, I had to create the poster to publicize it. With all the posters I create, I make sure that I take the time to research the topic before jumping into the designing process. What I found with this story was unlike any other. This is what I found out:
“Finding Face” is an independent film that follows the gruesome story of what happened to Tat Marina. A rising karaoke star in Cambodia, Marina had so much talent and charm at just 14. Her beauty attracted the attention of a 40-something year old man. He wooed her and claimed to be a rich and powerful businessman, promising her a life of comfort and love. Young, impressionable, and coming from a poor family, Marina was coerced into a relationship with him. Though as time went on, she discovered that he was no business man, but instead he was Svay Sitha– Cambodia’s Under Secretary of State, sometimes referred to as “His Excellency.” After confronting him on his lies, Tat Marina was locked up in a hotel room as prisoner, stripped of her clothes, and under 24-hour guard with this ultimatum: if you try to leave, your family will be murdered. To keep her family safe, she agreed to stay with Svay Sitha.
In 1999, Marina’s life was drastically changed forever. She had gone to the local market with her young nephew, babysitting him and taking him out to eat. While spoon-feeding her nephew, Marina’s hair was suddenly yanked back until she was pulled out of her seat and onto the ground. A crazed woman was scratching her, beating her, and kicking her. Marina yelled out for help, from anyone– any one of the hundred or so people in the bustling market. With each blow, Marina realized that the woman assaulting her was none other than Svay Sitha’s wife. She cried and yelled, but was silenced as three friends of the woman beat Marina unconscious.
One of the men, the nephew of the woman, went back to their car and grabbed a large bottle. He returned and began pouring its contents all over Marina’s face and upper body as the others continued to beat her. It was nitric acid. Her body turned white and burned, waking Marina from unconsciousness. She screamed and shrieked, running away for help. The perpetrators, who had gotten some splashes of the acid on them, shed their clothes at the scene leaving wallets, ID cards, and other valuables before driving off.
Hundreds of witnesses. Known perpetrators who left identification info and evidence at the crime scene. Not one person in jail.
There simply were no laws in place that even considered acid violence a punishable crime. Tat Marina has since lost both ears to gangrene, and undergone over 20 facial reconstruction surgeries. Her brother has been able to send her to the United States and help her become a citizen. For years, however, government authorities have threatened to bomb her home and kill her family members if they spoke out about what happened. Fearing this, the family has since been transported safely to Europe.
The woman was identified by witnesses as Khoun Sophal, indeed the wife of Svay Sitha. The young man who poured the acid was her nephew Khoun Vandy. They have been in hiding ever since this incident. Meanwhile, Svay Sith has been promoted further in the government, taking control of what the media can and cannot publish in particular.
At the event, Tat Marina herself was there with activist and the director of the film, Skye Fitzgerald. It was the first time Marina tried to tell her story to a crowd in her own words. Her voice wavered as she fought back tears and spoke in English, not her native language. She was so brave, so strong. I wanted to cry and hug her. I think everyone did. Skye helped her along, but eventually took over when it became too much for her. He informed us of what happened after the incident.
Other acid violence attacks have occurred in Cambodia because perpetrators knew nothing would be done against them since there were no laws in place. It is usually targeted against women, as a permanent disfiguration of the beauty they once had. Many victims are ostracized from society for they way they look now.
During the process of making the film “Finding Face,” Skye asked Marina’s brother what he would do if he ever came face to face with Khoun Sophal. To paraphrase, he said he would pour acid on her. Skye was shocked, but could understand. A year later, while they were still film-making and helping to investigate the legal actions that could be taken, Skye asked Marina’s brother again. This time, he paused, thought for a moment and said (to paraphrase): “I would splash a glass of water in her face and watch– for a moment–as she thought her face would melt away.”
For more information on this issue, I encourage you to visit http://www.findingface.org/ or simply Google the terms “acid violence.” I hope this story has moved you as it has moved me.