The memory of the woman in the niqab will always haunt her. Five years on, Naomi Oni knows she can never forget the image of that figure swathed in black, her unflinching gaze - and then the sudden, searing shock of the acid as it hit her face.
‘I’d felt a presence,’ Naomi recalls. ‘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.
‘Then I felt the splash. I took a big intake of breath then 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.
‘I hammered on my door shouting, “Acid! Acid!” My mum opened it. Her jaw dropped.
‘I was screaming: “My face is burning up.” There was steam coming off me. I was shaking with shock.’
Such acid attacks are now terrifyingly prevalent - a gruesomely simple weapon, deployed by criminals in robberies, muggings - and as revenge.
From takeaway delivery drivers out on their rounds to nightclubbers dancing and having fun, today there are more and more innocents who have felt the same caustic burn that Naomi so vividly describes. But on this dark night in the quiet lull between Christmas and New Year 2012, as Naomi, then 20, made her way home from a late shift at Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford, East London, where she worked in a lingerie boutique, acid attacks were rare.
She’d made the familiar journey home - by Tube, then bus - unaware that a black-clad woman was following her, poised to pounce in the empty street near the house in Dagenham that she shared with her mother.
So brutal was the attack that the scars are all too apparent five years on. Naomi was left with third degree burns and doctors feared she would be permanently blind. Her beautiful face was ravaged, her eyelids seared away. She looked, as she now recalls in this interview to coincide with a BBC documentary about the attack, ‘as if I’d melted’. A young life full of hope and promise was shattered.
You might imagine that such an event would have left Naomi, now 25, bitter and numb with rage.
Not so. With extraordinary grace and courage, she says she has forgiven her attacker — a young woman whom she had considered one of her closest friends, but who had been driven wild with jealousy by Naomi’s good looks, popularity and bubbly personality.
‘I do forgive her. I owe myself the freedom to move on. But I still think she is a callous, vindictive person; a complete coward who betrayed me.’
And while, in the aftermath of the attack, the law student boyfriend Naomi had may have ‘drifted away’, today she wisely says: ‘He was shallow. He just liked me when I was attractive.’
There have been no boyfriends since and her longed-for career as a make-up artist has stalled. Companies that make their money from selling perfection appear reluctant to employ someone with the disfigurement that Naomi endures.
‘People stare,’ says Naomi. ‘But I’m learning to block them out.’
Since 2014, when 200 acid attacks were reported to police, the number has more than doubled to 431 in 2016 — and the worst affected area is the borough of Newham, which includes Stratford’s Olympic Park, Westfield and Dagenham, where Naomi then lived and worked. In the past five years, almost 400 of London’s 1,500 reported attacks happened there.
In the worst cases, acid attacks can be fatal — a fact reflected in the punitive 20-year jail sentence Arthur Collins, 25, the ex-boyfriend of The Only Way Is Essex reality star Ferne McCann, received last month after hurling corrosive liquid across a club dance floor in East London, with little thought for those in its wake.
Mercifully for Naomi, her sight slowly returned. But the restoration of her vision brought new trauma — and as she caught sight of her disfigured reflection in a hospital mirror, she contemplated suicide.
‘I thought: “I’m never going to look like myself again,” ’ she says. ‘I had no hair or eyebrows. My eyelids had been burnt off. I couldn’t recognise 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.”’
Swathed in bandages in a hospital burns unit, Naomi also grappled with the mystery of why she had been targeted. This was no bungled attempted at robbery; nor was there any clue about who the woman in the niqab was. The attack defied logic or reason.
‘I concluded it was a crazy person, and that I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ she says.
Naomi, the beloved only child of Marriam, who had raised her single-handedly after her husband returned to live in his native Nigeria, had never been wayward or troublesome.
She went to a strict Catholic Convent School in Forest Gate, East London, and her bond with her mum was particularly strong because Marriam has albinism, which has caused her sight to deteriorate.
‘Mum always said I was her spare pair of eyes,’ says Naomi. ‘I used to care for her.’
Poised on the great adventure of life, Naomi dreamed of working as a make-up artist. She felt blessed — with a boyfriend, a job she enjoyed, good friends and not an enemy in the world. Or so she believed.
But the woman who disguised her identity by wearing traditional Muslim clothing was Mary Konye, a friend Naomi had known since they were both pupils at St Angela’s Ursuline School.
Konye is now serving a 12-year prison sentence for the attack, for which she has shown no remorse. Naomi, meanwhile, still reels at her former friend’s horrifying treachery.
The night when it happened - December 29, 2012 - is indelibly etched in her memory. She’d begun work at 7pm. It was her turn to do a late shift, but she was loath to go.
‘We had a family gathering at home. My godmother, uncle and several cousins had come over from Ireland, and Mum was cooking. I didn’t want to go to work and leave them all.’
But, once at work, the camaraderie of her colleagues buoyed her up. She remembers laughing with them before they all dispersed to go home at 11.30pm.
Naomi went by Tube from Stratford to West Ham, then Barking, where she caught a bus.
‘It was late, so during the journey I was keeping myself company by chatting to my then boyfriend on the phone,’ she recalls. ‘It was reassuring to talk to him.’
And then, in a matter of seconds, her life changed. ‘I got off the bus, still yakking away to my boyfriend and was about to cross the road when I felt a presence,’ she recalls.
There was the figure in black robes with the disconcerting stare.
‘Next, I heard a liquid being dispersed from a container and I felt I was being bathed in something.’
As the acid hit her, she screamed and fled home to her shocked family.
‘It was indescribable,’ she says. ‘Your mind is in a million different places. Your skin is scorched, you’re scared, and at the same time you’re thinking: “Why would someone do this to me? Am I a bad person?”’
Naomi’s auntie Nelly, a pharmacist, knew instantly what had happened. She helped Naomi out of her clothes and washed her in the shower to try to dilute the potent effects of the sulphuric acid. Her mother called for an ambulance and her uncle Charles rang the police.
The ensuing days were a blur as Naomi, dosed with morphine, was taken first 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,’ she recalls. ‘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.’
Throughout January 2013, she remained in hospital. She underwent two skin grafts. Her eyelids were reconstructed with skin from behind her ears, her face rebuilt with skin from her right thigh.
‘As my sight started to return, they covered the windows and mirrors so I couldn’t catch a glimpse of my reflection, but I saw a vague image reflected in my phone.
‘I thought: “What?” It wasn’t me. My face was burnt black, charred. I remember thinking: “No one is ever going to marry me now.”
‘It’s like a death. The old Naomi was a fun, fashionable, giggly person and that person had gone. I felt like I’d never blend in with other girls or have a normal life again. Many times I thought about taking my life.’
Since her discharge from hospital, Naomi has undergone ‘countless’ medical procedures to reconstruct her face, as well as grappling with the awful truth that the culprit was someone she believed was a friend and who later only compounded her cruelty by feigning concern for the injured Naomi.
In hindsight, Naomi realises there had been clues to Mary’s skewed and troubled personality.
‘She was bullied at school, a bit of a misfit, and I took her under my wing because I’d also been bullied,’ she says.
‘I accepted that the relationship was volatile. Mary would argue with me — but she’d had a troubled upbringing, while I had a loving mother, so I always made allowances for her.’
Police had asked Naomi if anyone had ever threatened to throw acid at her. Naomi racked her brain and a memory was ignited.
Back in 2011, after a trivial argument, she recalled that Mary had made such a threat — but she had dismissed it. ‘And I kept believing that no friend of mine could possibly do that,’ she says.
In February 2013, Naomi celebrated her 21st birthday with a small party.
‘Mary actually came, flaunting herself in a highly inappropriate boob tube and mini skirt,’ she recalls. ‘It was as if she was saying: “Look at me, and look at you.”
‘I’d told everyone: “Please don’t cry for me. I want everyone to be happy” — but Mary was the idiot who sat on the arm of my chair sobbing. I rubbed her back. She wrote in her card to me, “Happy Birthday beautiful, Love Mary.”’
Scotland Yard’s homicide squad were by now on Mary’s case. Tracking the movements of the mystery woman in the niqab on CCTV camera footage, they discovered she was carrying a handbag identical to one Mary, who had already been questioned by police, brought to the interview.
The handbag was eventually found to have splashes of sulphuric acid on it.
The evidence was enough to charge Mary, who was by then at university, and in March 2014 she was jailed for 12 years.
In court she was defiant, making the preposterous claim that Naomi had thrown the acid on herself because she wanted the ‘fame and fortune’ bestowed on acid attack victim Katie Piper, a TV presenter.
Finally, she was compelled to admit that it was a monstrous lie.
The court heard Mary was ‘obsessed’ with Naomi and so jealous of her looks that she’d attempted to destroy them.
But she has failed, for Naomi remains striking. There is, too, a defiant beauty in her bravery, in her determination not to be cowed by the tragedy, in the courage with which she faces the world each day.
She has completed her course in make-up and while she has been rejected from countless jobs, she will not capitulate.
‘But when I look in the mirror, I do feel sad,’ she admits. ‘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.
‘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 learnt since is that the right guy will see beyond my scars. I’ve become a better judge of character now.’
She adds: ‘I also know that the man who marries me will be lucky to have me.’
The smile that suffuses her face is radiant.
* Acid Attack: My Story broadcasts on BBC3 and is available on BBC iPlayer from tomorrow.