SYDNEY (Reuters) - Krystle Kelley’s scarred face, slashed by an angry drunk woman with a broken glass, is the face of Australia’s alcohol-fueled wave of violence.
“My eyeball was cut in half ... right through the back of the retina. I am permanently blind in one eye and have severe scaring,” Kelley, 21, told Reuters.
“My whole life has been turned upside down from the age of 21. I can’t work because I go to hospital every month to have several operations,” she said.
“I spoke to two other people who had been ‘glassed’ and they suffer the same side effects. When they hear something break they are jumpy ... pretty much put their back against a wall, nightmares, sharp pains where they have actually been cut.”
Each weekend, Australian cities like Sydney are littered with unconscious, vomiting and fighting young drunks.
Binge drinking by young Australians has reached frightening levels, say police and hospital staff who struggle to stem the violence and are left to repair the wounds of victims.
“We are becoming a much more violent, aggressive society. We are becoming intolerant of anything that annoys us ... and hence road rage, parking rage, trolley rage at the supermarket,” says Dr Gordon Fulde, head of the emergency department at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney.
“We are assaulting people more viciously. The violence is very, very nasty. Weapons are also involved now and the closest weapon when drinking is a glass or bottle,” says Fulde, who treats bloodied victims of drunken fights each weekend.
Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), which includes the nation’s biggest city Sydney, recorded 21,000 incidents of alcohol-related violence in the past year, with the rate of violent incidents rising 7 percent annually.
Irish tourist David Keohane, 29, was almost bashed to death outside a Sydney pub in August and was flown home in a coma, while flowers were tied around a street pole outside a Bondi pub after an Irishman was left fighting for his life after a beating.
“It takes no more than a bump on the dance floor or a bump when people are passing outside the hotel for there to be an all-out war,” Judge Paul Condon said in a 2008 case involving a female surf lifesaver who had an epileptic fit and bumped a woman at a club. She was repeatedly kicked and stomped on by the woman.
In NSW there has been a 25 percent rise in “glassings” in the past five years, when a drinker smashes a broken beer or wine glass into someone’s face, causing major eye and facial injuries.
In 2003/04 there were 830 glassings in NSW, in 2007/08 there were 1,027, says the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.
“This increase in assaults involving glasses just seems to have come out of nowhere,” says Don Weatherburn, director of the bureau. “Nobody really knows the explanation for the increase.”
Reports of glassings by both men and women drinkers is widespread, from Sydney, to the tropical northern city of Darwin, to Perth on the west coast. Several young women with permanent scars across their faces from glassings have appeared on TV news in recent months pleading for young Aussies to stop the violence.
Australia has always had a reputation as a hard drinking nation but there is now a culture of binge drinking amongst young people seeking instant gratification, says Fulde.
“We have always drunk a lot. But the young people want it now. They haven’t got time or the inclination to spend a couple of hours getting slightly inebriated. It’s also cheaper,” he says.
Binge drinking is also widespread among high profile Australian footballers, the role models for young males who are most likely to be involved in alcohol-related violence, says a study by the Burnet Institute at Melbourne University.
The study of Australian Football League players found they led a roller-coaster life of extreme binge drinking alternated with bursts of abstinence.
It found 88 percent indulged in high-risk drinking, more than 11 drinks in a day, at least once a month and more than half were endangering their long-term health by consuming large amounts of alcohol during end-of-season celebrations. A quarter of players were involved in fights due to alcohol.
Fulde says young Australians seemed to be more angry, less tolerant and desensitized to violence.
“We all seem to have a shorter fuse. We are more stressed, bigger populations, bigger expectations. What confronts young people on TV and in the media is violence. Violence is the norm.” Criminologists say the alcohol-fueled violence will rise come summer when young Aussies party more in the outdoors.
This Australian summer, an extra 150 police will patrol the nightclub beat on Friday and Saturday nights in Australia’s second largest city Melbourne to try and stem violence.
The “glassing” phenomenon is not limited to Australia.
“Stabbings in London have massively increased and glassings have also increased in England and that is our cultural parent,” Fulde says. “Violence is now just an accepted way of communication, like it has been in America for a long while.”
NSW police say Sydney’s alcohol-fueled violence is already worse than Los Angeles due to Australia’s 24-hour liquor licenses. There are more than 600 24-hour licensed premises in Australia, with more than 400 in NSW.
“This drink to get drunk culture must stop. LA doesn’t have the problems we do. They close the doors at 2 a.m. It’s time to give the neighborhood back and take the hoods out,” says NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione, a teetotaler.
Scipione is fed up with seeing his officers assaulted and backs a government move to cut back on licensing hours.
Australia’s national government has raised taxes on “alcopops,” premixed alcohol drinks which are so sweet you can’t taste the alcohol, to try and curb young binge drinking.
The NSW state government has announced no more 24-hour liquor licenses will be issued and Sydney’s local government is promoting small European-style wine bars to change drinking habits away from the barn-style pubs.
The NSW government has also identified 50 pubs and clubs for tough new liquor rules. From December 1, these pubs and clubs will be forced to lock out patrons after 2 a.m., serve drinks in plastic glasses after midnight, restrict drinks bought after midnight, and close alcohol service 30 minutes before closing.
But glassing victim Kelley does not believe the tougher drinking laws will end the violence.
“There are no consequences and they are wrecking people’s lives. I want a permanent statutory law against anyone that uses a glass as a weapon that carries a jail penalty,” she says.
Editing by Bill Tarrant