A teenage refugee from Eritrea who was blinded in an acid attack in south London says he believes he might still be able to see if the police had acted more swiftly.
The teenager, Aaron, 18 (not his real name), is speaking out for the first time. The incident happened on 7 December 2020 at about 8.10am in Thornton Heath. Aaron was walking to college with his friend Jemal, 25 (not his real name), an asylum seeker also from Eritrea.
A man approached them and threw a cup of acid into their faces. Jemal received injuries to his eyes and face but was not blinded. The Metropolitan police say the suspect and the motive behind the attack are unknown.
Crimestoppers has launched an appeal, offering a reward of up to £5,000 for anonymous information. The victims are receiving support from Da’aro, a youth project for young asylum seekers and refugees, which launched a crowdfund campaign to help them.
The two victims say the man who threw the acid is white and they believe the attack could have been motivated by racism.
Police say the man who blinded Aaron is the same person who came to his home on 7 September saying he had a letter for him. CCTV footage of that incident shows the teenager going into the street to collect the letter and being punched twice in the face by the man who had a bicycle chain wrapped around his fist.
Aaron said: “I reported the first attack to the police but they didn’t catch him. If they had caught him after the first attack I would not have been blinded in the second one. I asked for help after the first attack but I didn’t get it. With the acid attack the police waited until January of this year to launch a witness appeal. I feel hopeless now.”
Both victims fled persecution in Eritrea and endured difficult journeys through Libya, crossing the Mediterranean in a small boat, and spent time in Calais before finally reaching the UK and believing they were safe at last.
“I didn’t know anything about acid attacks until this happened to me,” said Aaron.
“We came here to save our lives,” said Jemal. “I thought this was a peaceful country where nobody would hurt us. We never expected an acid attack. We are not involved in crime. We were on our way to college to further our education when this happened.
“In Eritrea we don’t have the opportunity to study because of the dictatorship,” said Aaron. “It was a long journey to the UK, I suffered a lot in Libya and in Calais. My injury is for ever. The attack was more than painful. I was completely blinded. I ran out into the road, not seeing where I was going. A man stopped his car and called the ambulance. I could hear them but couldn’t see anything.”
Initially, the two victims were taken to Croydon hospital and later transferred to Chelsea and Westminster hospital’s burns unit.
“My friend’s face was extremely damaged,” said Jemal. “His eyes, his nose, his hair was burned off the top half of his head. I was discharged that evening. Luckily my sight returned to my right eye, but my friend had to stay in hospital for almost one month.”
Jemal added: “The biggest injury is in my heart. I worry about my friend. He’s very scared. He doesn’t feel safe to go outside. He tells me that he believes leaving his room could cost him his life. He doesn’t sleep and cries all night.”
DC Dimitri Savathrakis, of the south area CID reactive team, said: “This was a violent and unprovoked attack on two innocent victims and we are doing everything in our power to bring the person responsible to justice.”
The suspect is described as a white or Asian male, of slim build, who wore a black hooded jacket, dark coloured trousers and shoes or boots. On each occasion he was wearing a light blue medical mask and a dark coloured baseball cap.
Aaron appealed to his attacker to hand himself in to police and said he would not feel safe until the man was caught. “Please go to the police and admit to what you have done,” he said.
When asked why there had been a delay in launching a witness appeal after the acid attack, a Met spokesperson said: “After exhausting a number of avenues of inquiries a decision was made to issue a witness appeal. There is no evidence at this time to suggest it was a racially motivated attack, but we keep an open mind as to motive. Following inquiries, officers are confident the attacker in the first and second incident is the same person.”
Anyone with information can contact Crimestoppers UK or call 0800 555 111. The reward of up to £5,000 is on offer for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for the acid attack.