LOS ANGELES (Circa) - What happened Andreas Christopheros represents a surging crime wave in the U.K., acid attacks, also known on the streets as a "face-melting" attack. He says everything you thought you knew about acid attacks is wrong because the crime and statistics are changing. It's no longer a crime impacting mostly women in South Asia. Acid has now become a weapon for gangs or other criminals attacking mostly men in the U.K. and he says not enough is being done to stop it.
Andreas lives in South West England where he enjoyed his late 20s heading to outdoor concerts, welcoming fatherhood with his new family, and worked diligently growing his business. He never gave much thought to crime, until three years ago when a stranger showed up at his front door and threw acid on his face. It was a case of mistaken identity that would forever change how Andreas identifies himself.
He was blinded in one eye and his skin horribly melted and disfigured, creating the need for ongoing operations to recreate eyelids, and support normal necessary functions like breathing and eating. He says he faces at least seven more years of reconstructive surgery.
The man arrested for the crime, David Phillips, told police that he went to the wrong house in Cornwall, where he meant to target another man as revenge for sexually assaulting someone close to him. Phillips was sentenced to life, but recently appealed and now he is eligible for parole in five years.
What's most disturbing about this for Andreas, isn't only the way his life has changed or that his attacker will soon be released while his scars are permanent. It's that what happened to him is not that unusual.
Acid attacks in the U.K. have skyrocketed, up 80 percent in the past two years, according to Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI). While these types of attacks happen all over the world, the targets are better known to be women in South Asia, as part of what's known as an honor crime. Most common were cases of domestic abuse or a man targeting a woman who had rejected him.
The Executive Director of Acid Survivors Trust International, Jaf Shah, says with more stringent laws, those types of attacks are decreasing in South Asia while unfortunately, they're increasing exponentially in the U.K. which now has the highest rate of acid violence in the world.
"The U.K. goes against the global pattern, so we had to figure out what is behind the steep increase in the last two years, " said Shah. "There's been a crackdown on guns and knives in the U.K., so would-be perpetrators and gang members are looking for alternative weapons and they've chosen acid as a weapon of choice because unlike guns it's very easily available and it's cheap, and unlike weapons leaves a very visible scar on its intended victim."
Since corrosive acid is an ingredient in many household cleaners, there are no restrictions on buying it, and it can be found for as little as 12 dollars.
After Andreas recovered from the initial round of surgeries, he found a new purpose in speaking out, to raise awareness about the dangers of corrosive acid.
"After staying in bed for months, I realized this isn't how I deal with things, so I dragged myself out of bed and decided to do something," said Andreas. "I never set out to campaign, but for most of the last year, I found myself campaigning because attackers should face much longer sentences. Any person who commits a crime with a corrosive substance should be facing at minimum 20 years in jail."
Authorities in the U.K. are beginning to respond to the surge in attacks. Over the summer, police in London were equipped with one-thousand acid attack response kits. And this past Monday, April 9th, the Mayor of London announced immediate measures including a ban on the home delivery of corrosive acid from internet sales.
At the same time, the U.K. Home Office announced the Offensive Weapons Bill which includes several measures to curb the increase in acid violence. The plan adds sulfuric acid to the list of regulated explosive precursors that come under the Poisons Act, which means that people would need a license to buy and use the substance. Home Secretary Amber Rudd said the bill would also prevent sales to all people under 18 and would make it an illegal to possess acid in public without good reason.
Andreas says while these are exciting new steps in the right direction, more needs to be done. He says there should be longer mandatory sentences and many more restrictions than age alone when it comes to the sale of corrosive acid, and notes that sulfuric acid is just one of many types that are extremely dangerous and readily available.
He shared a conversation he had with his four-year-old son, on the morning of our interview, to explain how this attack has impacted everyone close to him. "This morning was the first time he asked me, 'Daddy when are you going to have your face back? I don't like your face,' so I had a joke with him and explained that I'll never have it back as it was before but the doctors are still chipping away." Andreas realizes it will be hard for his children as they grow older and become more aware of the social stigma of having a dad that looks like him, but he's convinced it will also make them stronger.
The charitable organization Face Forward not only donated his latest facial reconstructive surgery but also awarded him with their "Strength Award."
"Now I use my scars to my advantage because I ended up personally getting so much from helping others," said Christopheros. "I never had any real drive to be that sort of person, it just evolved from this whole experience."
The support of his family and friends has kept him positive and always looking forward. He did this interview just weeks after he and his wife brought baby Lazarus into this world. He hopes other survivors, or anyone faced with this type of challenge, will learn from him that perseverance pays off and while life is different now, it still can be beautiful.
To learn more about acid attacks around the world and what you can do to get involved, visit Acid Survivors Trust International at https://www.acidviolence.org.
Andreas' friends have been raising money for the various charities that have been helping him recover, like the Katie Piper Foundation and Face Forward. They have a fundraiser on JustGiving at https://www.justgiving.com/teams/cornishsurvivor
The Los Angeles based charity Face Forward donates reparative facial surgeries to others like Andreas, around the world, who've suffered disfiguring attacks. You can learn more about them at FaceForwardLA.org.
The Katie Piper Foundation works to help people around the world suffering scars from burn attacks with hair transplant and replacement surgeries, tattooing, and is about to launch a residential burn rehabilitation service in the U.K. Visit https://katiepiperfoundation.org.uk to learn more or help.