5 years after horrific acid attack, brave victim speaks out and says she forgives her attacker
As she walked back home after her shift at the Victoria's Secret lingerie store in Stratford, London on December 30, 2012, little did Naomi Oni know her life was about to change forever. She would be the victim of a horrific acid attack carried out by her own friend.
Acid attacks have been a growing problem in the U.K, with the national police lead on the issue saying that 2017 saw the most on record in the U.K, with over 400 such attacks carried out in the first four months alone. Victims have their lives changed forever and it was no different for Naomi Oni.
Back in 2012, Oni worked at a Victoria's Secret lingerie store and wanted to develop her career as a model and makeup artist, when a Sulphuric acid attack by a veiled woman would leave her scarred for life. Police used CCTV footage to determine that the attacker was Oni's friend, Mary Konye, who was reportedly jealous of Oni and copied her clothes and hairstyle, even going as far as to mimic the way she spoke, her laugh, and her walk.
Now, more than 5 years later since that fateful day, Oni has spoken out but says she forgives Konye for her despicable deed. Speaking about the horrifying incident, Oni recalls: "I'd felt a presence. I remember seeing a woman’s cold eyes piercing into mine. The rest of her face was obscured by her veil. I didn’t want to stare back, so I turned away."
The date was December 30, 2012. Then just 20-years-old, Oni was making her way home from a late night shift at the Westfield Shopping Center in Stratford, east London. She was taking the normal route of first the tube and then bus, completely unaware that a niqab-clad woman was following her. The attack would take place on an empty street near her house in Dagenham.
She continues: "Then I felt the splash. I took a big intake of breath and screamed. I thought I was going to be killed. My face and tongue were burning. I didn’t have time to feel fear. I ran and didn’t look back. I felt it was the end - that I was on the brink of death. I screamed as loud as I could to deter this woman from chasing me and ran until I got to my front door. I could feel a scalding sensation and there was a chemical smell."
She then knocked on the door screaming. She said: "My face is burning up. There was steam coming off me. I was shaking with shock."
Luckily, Oni's aunt Nelly, a pharmacist, knew what had happened and helped Naomi into the shower so they could dilute the potent effects of the acid. An ambulance was called and her uncle notified the police of the incident. She was taken to London's Whitechapel Hospital and then to the specialist burns unit at Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, Essex.
"They washed my eyes with saline and yellow mucus kept pouring out. I drifted in and out of consciousness. I remember voices saying “corrosive substance” and “badly burned. I couldn’t see. They told my mum and uncle, but not me, that the chances of me getting any sight back were small," she recalls.
The attack left her with third-degree burns and her injuries meant that doctors feared she would become permanently blind. Her face was effectively ravaged, her eyelids had seared away, and she was quoted telling BBC during a documentary of her attack that she felt as if she 'had melted.'
The situation was arguably a lot more hurtful because the attacker had been who she had considered a friend, albeit was a tempestuous one at best. Oni and the Konye were friends since the pair was 11-years-old and had had a 'typical' relationship during their teenage years. But the pair fell out in April 2011 after Oni discovered that Konye was trying to steal her boyfriend by sending him anonymous text messages claiming that Oni was sleeping with other men.
While the pair made up six months later, Konye had reportedly told college friends at Southgate that she wanted to throw acid on Oni and that she would wear a niqab to disguise herself. She had also made a similar threat after an argument with Oni in 2011 but neither had been taken seriously. Furthermore, after the attack happened, Konye even offered Oni a shoulder to cry on.
Speaking at Konye's hearing, Oni said: "I just had my bandages removed and it was the first time I saw my face after surgery and I broke down and I had spoken to Mary that night and I was crying on the phone to her and she was on the phone to me telling me, “don’t worry, you’ll be OK."
Scotland Yard's homicide squad tracked the movement of the mysterious woman in the niqab through CCTV footage and discovered that she was carrying a handbag identical to one Konye had. That handbag was eventually found to have traces of Sulphuric acid and she was subsequently sentenced to 12 years in jail.
Even in court, Konye was defiant, going so far as to claim that Oni had thrown the acid on herself because she wanted the 'fame and fortune' bestowed on acid attack victim Katie Piper, a T.V presenter.
It would be so easy for her to hold a grudge against Konye but Oni shows a maturity and grace that is well beyond her years. She said: "I do forgive her. I owe myself the freedom to move on. But I think she is a callous, vindictive person; a complete coward who betrayed me."
While Oni's sight gradually returned, she would still have to come to terms with her now-disfigured face. She said: "I thought 'I'm never going to look like myself again.' I had no hair or eyebrows. My eyelids had been burnt off. I couldn't recognize myself. A slab of my thigh had been grafted onto my face where my cheek had been burnt away."
"I just couldn't take it in. I couldn't stop crying. I looked at this vision of my face in the hospital bathroom and just slid down the wall. I didn't feel grateful I was alive. I felt angry and thought 'What is the point in living?' I thought about taking my life. But then I gathered myself. I imagined my mum's face and thought 'I couldn't do it to her. I couldn't leave her," she added.
She has now completed her course in make-up and despite countless rejections is not ready to give up. She said: "When I look in the mirror, I do feel sad. I think a lot about what might have been and where I’d have been today if I hadn’t been attacked. When I look back at old photos of myself, I see an innocent girl with big dreams and aspirations, wanting to make her family proud."
She continues: "There are still days when I’m unhappy, but I tell myself I’ll overcome it. If something catastrophic can change a life in a second, then great things can happen, too. After the attack happened, I thought no man would want me. What I’ve learned since is that the right guy will see beyond my scars. I’ve become a better judge of character now."