His head and torso swaddled in bandages, Roem Til, 53, gingerly lifts himself into a sitting position at Preah Kossamak Hospital in Phnom Penh. His teenage daughter, unbidden, climbs onto his hospital bed and gently dabs his weeping eyes with a tissue.
Til is Cambodia’s latest acid attack victim – the fourth so far this year. His skin is seared black where the acid ran in rivulets over his legs and torso. He cannot see clearly and for now is blinded in his left eye.
Yet Til yesterday begged Tbong Khmum provincial authorities to release his attacker – his wife, Phun Sreang, 40.
Acid attacks are often tied to romantic jealousy and mostly target women, especially their faces, in a malicious attempt to permanently disfigure them.
Sreng was arrested on Tuesday evening for allegedly throwing an acid used to solidify rubber on her husband. Sreng told police she was frequently abused and beaten by her husband – a fact Til admitted yesterday, but one that had long been overlooked by their community and local police.
Til said the pair had an argument on Tuesday. It got physically violent and he claims blows were thrown on both sides.
He says after their fight, he was doused in acid as he slept – a claim that was disputed by police, who said Sreng flung the acid during their fight, in which she was threatened and assaulted.
“My skin feels like it is burning now. It hurts in all the places the acid touched,” Til said.
A farmer with a small rice paddy plot, Til says the attack was likely due to the abuse and jealousy over suspected adultery. Sreng is Til’s “second wife” – a relatively common trend in Cambodia – though they have been together 20 years and have two daughters, aged 11 and 14.
“I won’t make a complaint . . . I request the authorities to release her so she can take care of our children,” he said.
“It’s better than detaining her, when I have this injury from the acid.” Til said he continued to love his wife, and was willing to forgive everything – even the acid.
“I call for the people of Cambodia to stop violence, especially in the family. Acid is very serious; the attacker suffers, and the victim suffers more,” he said.
Teal Sokhim, 26, Til’s daughter by his first wife, sits at the foot of his bed. Her eyes are rimmed red from crying and she says she is not ready to forgive.
“I felt very angry when I heard my father was attacked by my stepmother,” Sokhim said.
While Tbong Khmum Provincial Court Deputy Prosecutor Hak Seak Lim said the court would consider legal requests made by the suspect and the victim, Deputy Provincial Police Chief Prak Bun Nol said an acid attack was a serious criminal offence, “so police cannot release her”.
Bun Nol said Sreng’s case would be sent to the provincial court at 8:30am today.
The 2012 Acid Law introduced harsh new sentences for perpetrators and put restrictions on the purchase and distribution of acid, yet promised financial support for survivors from the Ministry of Social Affairs has never come to fruition.
Til hasn’t received any government support yet, and doesn’t know how his wife obtained the acid. Human rights observers on Wednesday said this latest case showed the dangerous substances were still too easy to buy.
Also on Wednesday, women’s rights advocates called for authorities to take domestic abuse seriously and focus on preventing the violence before it reached such a critical point.