‘I thought my life was over after ex-boyfriend’s acid attack – but I found true love’

Disoriented and in searing pain, Linneti Kirungi gasped in horror as nurses doused her scorched body in cold water again and again.

The social sciences student was in such agony she struggled to remember how and why she was in hospital. But soon the devastating reason came back – an acid attack, orchestrated by her boyfriend, the man who was supposed to love and care for her.

Linneti had broken things off with her ex when his behaviour became controlling. He demanded the student give up her course at university in Kampala and get married – and when she refused, he stalked and threatened her, she says.

Worse was to come. As Linneti, then 20, walked to university one morning, an accomplice she says was paid by her ex threw acid over her.

The liquid burned the clothes from her body and ate into her face and neck. His reasoning, Linneti says, was that she “would die or be disfigured so nobody would ever want me”.

His plan almost worked. Linneti, driven mad by pain, ran into traffic hoping a car would kill her and end the torment.

After two hours of wandering helplessly, she was taken to hospital. It was a long road to recovery – more than a year in hospital, in awful pain.

Linneti survived, healed, completed her university course and, after seeing the lack of support given to fellow acid burn survivors, set up an NGO called Hope Care Rescue Mission, funding medical care and basic supplies.

But one thing was missing. “It took me a few good years after the attack to get close to a man again,” Linneti says.

“I had so much hatred for them. Whenever a man would approach me I would think he was also going to do the same things my ex-boyfriend had done to me.”

Boyfriends hurt her in other ways. One man Linneti thought she would marry left her after seeing the scars she’d painstakingly tried to hide.

Her relationship with the father of her son Ethan, now five, ended when her partner’s mum told him he “should have chosen a normal person”.

Eventually Linneti stopped seeking “the one”. “I thought I’d never love again because people were so bothered by my scars,” she recalls.

“I decided that love wasn’t for me, and I would just dedicate my life to helping others. But then it came out of the blue!”

Linneti met Dave Flew through her work. The 42-year-old Brit, an automotive engineer and artist from Weston super-Mare, Somerset, spent time volunteering with survivors in India.

He and Linneti met online in 2020. After supporting one another in their charitable work, their relationship gradually grew deeper.

“The very first thing Linneti said to me was ‘thank you’ for the work I’d done in India,” Dave says with a smile.

“From that point on we spoke more often.

Over time we became closer and closer.”

Linneti’s family knew before she did the pair were falling in love. The penny dropped for the mum of one when Dave became desperate when he couldn’t get hold of her during a social media blackout in Uganda.

“When we finally reconnected I saw him crying,” Linneti says.

“He said he didn’t want to lose me, which I hadn’t expected at all. I realised he really cared about me and we were falling in love.”

After 18 months of online courtship, Dave and Linneti plan to marry next year. They met in person in March and in April celebrated a traditional kukyala ceremony – the first stage towards getting married in Linneti’s Bunyoro culture, in which Dave paid an official visit to her parents in Uganda.

Linneti, 31, finally touched down at Heathrow earlier this month after a long wait to secure a visitor’s visa to Britain.

“Seeing Dave in the waiting area at the airport was like a dream,” she says.

“The best thing that’s ever happened in my life.”

But Linneti’s happiness still hasn’t quite erased the horror of her attack.

“As the acid burned away my clothes, hair and flesh I screamed in agony,” she remembers, her voice cracking with emotion.

“I was as stiff as a statue. A passer-by tried to help by throwing water over me, but the acid was so strong that my hair weave burst into flames.

“I thought that my life had come to an end. There is no way to understand the pain.”

In hospital, where she was kept under cold running water from 8am to 5pm, her family didn’t recognise her. Linneti was sure she was dying.

I spent more than a year in hospital, in terrible pain,” she says.

“For the first two months I couldn’t se e anything. I lost one ear and the burns extended from my face down past my torso to my legs. I’ve kept just one picture from that awful time.”

She is, she says, “one of the lucky ones”, but life hasn’t been easy.

“Many men look at one’s beauty in terms of appearance, not the inner beauty, so a person like me with scars will always be seen as different from others and judged,” she adds.

“Even when you find someone and begin a relationship, they don’t feel comfortable. He doesn’t want to take you anywhere in public because he doesn’t want to be questioned.”

Thankfully, in Dave she found someone with a different outlook.

“Some people are bothered by Linneti’s injuries, and people with scarring from burns may look different, but they are still human,” he says.

“Having worked with survivors, I don’t see the injuries in the same way other people do.”

Once Linneti’s UK visit ends in January, she will return to Uganda to continue her work.

“The situation for survivors in Uganda is really difficult,” she explains.

“My current goal is to secure funds for a survivors’ centre in Kampala because there’s no NHS or social support like in the UK.

“Many victims die from their injuries or kill themselves in hopelessness. They are shunned and can barely make ends meet, suffering hunger and continuing pain. And the people who commit acid violence rarely face any punishment.”

In the last three years alone, Hope Care Rescue Mission has supported 330 acid survivors, offering psychosocial support in hospital and at home, and has helped 12 people have reconstructive surgery.

On the campaign side, the NGO is petitioning the Ugandan government to pass a law on acid attacks. And it has helped 10 cases go to court – five of which were won.

Linneti is also training survivors in skills such as shoe-making, crafting and tailoring so they can support themselves.

Some of their baskets and jewellery are available to buy in the UK through her Flewy-86 eBay shop.

“We believe that together we can make a real difference to the lives of so many people,” the campaigner says.

Linneti’s initial vision was to “set up a family where hope could grow”.

Since meeting Dave, that dream has expanded to family of another kind.

She and Dave are still to work out the details of how they will make their future together happen, but they are determined to find a way.

They would like to have children, and Linneti says: “We want to be together as a complete family.”