Pretty face, chocolate-coloured skin, bulbous nose and smiling eyes with fluttering eyelashes. This was Hanifa Nakiriowa before her husband hired goons to destroy her countenance.

Hanifa, 37, escaped death by a whisker in December 2011. She counts herself lucky to be alive to tell her story.

In 2003 while studying her degree at the Makerere University, Kampala she met the love of her life, her lecturer at the time.

At first, it was a fling. But it blossomed into an intense love affair.

A woman, they say, loves with her whole heart. Hanifa seemed to be no exception.

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She found a soul mate and they moved in together. By the time of her graduation in 2006, they were expecting their first child.

After giving birth to her firstborn, love turned sour.

“After giving birth I received a congratulatory message from a male friend and this is where my relationship struggles began,” Hanifa told the Star.

The husband whose name the Star will withhold was not pleased with the text, he barred Hanifa from working or studying from that day.

He wanted Hanifa to be a stay home mum and take care of their two children.

“I couldn’t stand the arrangement. I was ambitious, learned and I wanted to be independent,” she said.

Her husband became controlling and abusive. Hanifa settled for a divorce in October 2011 after seven years of marriage.

“I fled the marriage. I divorced him as he was also very controlling and abusive. He did not want me to study or work or have opinions that contradicted his,” she recounts.

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The couple had two children at the time, Hanifa left them under the care of their father as she sought refuge at her brothers home in Kampala.

Three months after walking out of the marriage, her ex-husband called her to visit their children.

“I went to my ex-husbands home to visit my children. I had not seen them in three months.”

She knocked on the door. Inside, she heard footsteps, but no one answered. Then a young man she did not know appeared and threw something at her face.

“On contact, my face felt cold. But in seconds, I felt a burning sensation, as if I was thrown in a pool of fire,” Hanifa recalled. “You burn in invisible flames.”

Witnesses begged her husband to take her to a hospital.

“When he finally opened the door, he said he could not find his car keys”, Hanifa said.

A neighbour rushed her to the nearest hospital. First aid was administered to her and luckily she survived.

At first, Hanifa did not comprehend the extent of her injuries but when she looked at the mirror she couldn’t stop crying.

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Half of her mouth had melted, the muscles in her lips were so contracted that it was not possible to form a smile.

“Parts of my nose had fallen off,My nostrils were so melted and contracted that I could not breathe. I lost one eye. My entire face was disfigured. That’s the first time I broke down and I cried,” she said.

“My family tried to calm me down, and all I could tell them was, Leave me alone, I need to cry this out. I cried for a long time.”

The doctors said it was a sulphuric acid attack.

She filed a case in the courts, along with their suspicion that my husband had organized the attack as retaliation against my flight from him but her husband was released on bail.

Hanifa withdrew from her battle with the legal system.

She left the hospital after months of reconstructive surgery and covered herself with a veil for fear of stigmatisation.

“Each time I put on my veil I was tempted to hide. I found silence, not peace. But I told myself I had to accept who I am and let the public accept me. This is me. I had to unveil,” she said.

She is adamant about one thing, “I’ll make these scars stars. Crying is not going to help me. I need to think out my next step if this is what I have to deal with the rest of my life.”

It took more than five years and 28 reconstructive surgeries for her lips to painlessly curve. She does not smile lightly.

She is currently an advocate for acid attack survivors and formed CERESAV organization to support the reintegration of survivors into accepting communities.

Amid her homework and advocacy, she devotes herself to her family.

Her face lights up as she talks about her daughters and their ardour for learning.

She flashes a wide, toothy grin as she explains how her older daughter’s enthusiasm to read humbles her.

“I never voluntarily read until after my attack. I found solace in motivational books,” she adds.

-The Star/ Lyndsay Nyawira