Ritu, the Fighter is not a Victim.
Ritu differs with this. "I am an Acid Attack fighter," she says with aplomb.
I ask for her full name. "Ritu Saa from Rohtak, Haryana.''
'Saa' is the acronym for Stop Acid Attack, the campaign that Ritu is now involved in. "We are fighters and also have a new second name," she says it with an endearing smile.
I met Ritu at a small apartment located in the congested lanes of East Delhi, which is run by NGO Chaanv as a shelter for victims of acid attack. With five acid attacks reported per week in India, such shelters are most needed for. Most of the victims have to come to Delhi for plastic and correctional surgery and they need a place to stay. The two room apartment is almost their second home.
Ritu has gone through the plastic surgeon's scalpel eighth time in three years. "This is the first time I am feeling very weak," she says. "I lost two kilos weight and I don't feel right about it," she adds.
However, Ritu's persona defies the stereotype of a victim and a 20-year old small town girl. As she spoke, the fighter in her emerged.
Ritu Saa spoke of her ordeal, struggle and new dreams in an exclusive interview for the Indian Currents to Aasha Khosa. Excerpts:
IC: Tell us about yourself?
RS: I was a regular school student in Rohtak doing my class 11. At 17, I was a Volleyball state level player and was looking forward to a career in sports. It was on May 26, 2012 at 4.30 pm that I was attacked with acid. That time I was going for my sports practice to the stadium. I remember, I was wearing my favourite red shirt and I was walking down when suddenly my world turned black and I was writhing in pain. I knew somebody had thrown acid on me.
IC: How did people help you that moment?
RS: There was a kirtan going on at the chowk. But think of it, nobody came forward to help me. I could not see anything it was all black. Somehow I remembered that my younger brother was in service at the kirtan so I loudly called for him. It was my brother who took me to hospital.
IC: Who were the assailants?
RS: They were four scooter borne goons who had thrown acid on me. But the real kingpin was my first cousin (bua's son). It seems he was in love with me and also our parents were locked in a property dispute. My cousin had hired the mercenaries to settle scores with my family. Disfiguring a girl is the most brutal way of taking revenge. But, now all of them are cooling their heels in jails. In December five of the attackers have been held guilty - three including my cousin were awarded life imprisonment, and two got 10 year jail term.
IC: Did your attacker show remorse at any time?
RS: My uncle (kingpin's father) visited us the next day of the attack. He wanted an out of court compromise. But what pained me more was the fact that he was not bothered about the state of my health. My face was badly burnt; I had lost the sight in one eye. Facing your tormentor is a nightmarish experience for any victim. I came face to face with my cousin thrice in the court. Two times, I had covered my face. The third time, I did not cover it and that is when I felt my cousin did not have guts to make even eye contact with me. May be he felt guilty.
IC: Living with the physical pain and mental trauma is not easy. How did you cope?
RS: I consider myself lucky that my case got big media attention and governmental support. I know there are hundreds of sufferers like me who do not even get support from their families. But yes, coming to terms with this was not easy. Though I was being treated at one of the best hospitals of the country and government of Haryana was paying for it, I was always depressed. I have lost vision in one eye; have gone through painful surgeries. I would often think why it happened to me; I would always think of revenge. However, this changed after I got involved in the Stop Acid Attack campaign. Now I am looking forward to helping more women like me and making sure they get justice.
IC: What is your dream now?
RS: After joining the SAA campaign, I have stopped thinking about my past. I am determined to outgrow my pain and tragedy, and be of help to other women who are victims of acid attackers and have no support. I am no longer seething with feeling of revenge because I realized that even by thinking so, I would be stooping to his levels. I am happy that I have two supportive families - one at Rohtak and other in Delhi - NGO Chaanv. I wanted to make sure that all the girls like me come out in open and do not wail in self-pity. We have to fight for justice and our rights. I remember Geetaji from Agra, who has been fighting for 22 years to get justice for her daughter; she is feeling confident and more positive.
IC: How would you like to live?
RS: With the help of Chaanv, we - five acid attack fighters - have opened a cafe in Agra. It's called Sherose Cafe. We do not get jobs, so we have to be entrepreneurs. My dream is to make the Sherose cafe a success story. Right now I look after the management and financial aspect of the cafe. We are getting a good response. The best thing is those guests do not react on seeing us as they are aware of our stories. It's very empowering.
RS: No it's not on the cards. But yes, one day may be...Initially I missed my volleyball. Though one year after the attack, I had tried playing, it did not work. The ball hit my face. As my one eye is damaged, I cannot see the ball coming and half the players in the field. I was disappointed. But now I have a volleyball in Sherose and I am free to play with my colleagues. I am in happy space.
IC: How do you look at your campaign?
RS: On individual level it is very successful. Initially I used to cover my face. Now I do not do it which means that I and my other friends have accepted our reality. We are demanding a total ban on open sale of acid which is supported by the Supreme Court. But the SC order is not being implemented on the ground. Only last month a girl in my state was thrown acid at. The government should understand that even if a bucket of acid goes into the hands of criminals, it is enough to destroy the lives of so many girls.
IC: Many other countries also have such victims of acid attacks. Do you know about them?
RS: Yes, I know about acid attack fighters in Pakistan where they are employed in a chain of beauty parlours. Surely we should meet and share our experiences. But right now, I have a major challenge of getting the victims in India out of their homes and getting them justice.
Published by HT Syndication with permission from Indian Currents.
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