EYELESS IN KASHMIR: PELLETS AND PAIN

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Insha Malik, 14, lays unconscious in a hospital bed after being shot with pellets fired by security forces, with doctors saying she had lost vision in both eyes, in the surgical ICU hospital in Srinagar on July 14, 2016. (AFP)

SPECIAL REPORT

The summer of 2016 in Kashmir saw hundreds blinded and thousands partially blinded, thanks to pellets fired by security forces. Baseera Rafiqi meets some of the victims to understand and share their pain

Baseera Rafiqi | Caravan Daily

SRINAGAR – The summer of 2016 shall go down in Kashmir’s recent history as one of the most tumultuous and violent phases in more ways than one. The year witnessed an unprecedented situation where the Valley had been under curfew for more than 4 months, over a 100 people had been killed and more than 10,000 were injured due to pellets used by security forces.

The pellet injuries were so bad that many youths of Kashmir Valley have been robbed of the dreams and many lost the capability to see forever.

Indian authorities call the shotgun shells filled with hundreds of small metal pellets a “non-lethal” weapon for crowd control, but that does not make them harmless. They’ve inflicted a permanent toll on hundreds of Kashmiris hit by them.

Their faces are scarred. Their eyes are damaged or simply gone, replaced with prosthetics. And their psychological wounds run deeper still.

The pellets have been in use here since 2010. Soldiers are trained to fire the shotguns below protesters’ waists, causing immense pain but no permanent injuries. But as police official acknowledge, that the rules are more or less not followed because of the intensity of stone-throwing protests.

 

Insha Mushtaq Malik poses for a portrait inside her home in Sedow, south Kashmir, Nov. 29, 2016. Insha says she was standing by the window of her village home watching protesters and troops skirmish when more than a 100 pellets hit her face. AP

Bilal Ahmad Waza, 17, from Chichilora village of Budgam district is one amongst the hundreds who became the victim of pellets. It was on September 9, Friday as Bilal recalls, “We had finished our Friday prayer and were talking on the roadside when all of a sudden police came in from nowhere and started to shoot. I saw police coming in and I fell on the ground. All I remember was that my friends dragged me home as I couldn’t walk and was semi-unconscious.”

The pellets left Bilal blinded Bilal in his right eye, and some semblance of sight is left in the other eye. He is presently appearing for the Board exams of 10th standard but is unable to see things clearly.

“I cannot read for long hours, as everything blurs after a while. Everything turns black if I strain too much after which I am not able to concentrate. Same thing happened in the examination hall yesterday; I had to give away my answer sheet before time as I was not able to see anything properly,” adds Bilal.

Bilal Ahmad Waza, 17, from Chichilora village of Budgam district is one amongst the hundreds who became the victim of pellets. Image Baseera Rafiqui/Caravan Daily

Bilal has undergone two major surgeries and continues to be under the supervision of doctors for further treatment. “There is still a pellet under my left eye-lid, but the doctors believe that its removal could mean loss of complete sight forever, so they are unwilling to remove that pellet,” he explains.

Belonging to a modest family, Bilal had thought that would bring his family some relief from poverty by helping them. “My father is a poor baker who has to manage a large family. I wanted to study and change our condition for the better but that now seems almost impossible,” laments the 17-year-old.

The only chance for Bilal of a better future was his pursuit of education but now it seems to be a distant dream. Life has taken a U-turn for him and his family. Bilal’s family have spent huge money on his treatment hoping his eyesight would get better but without any encouraging results so far. While Bilal talks, his sisters and mother sit sobbing silently in the corner.

“I don’t know whom to blame. I think it was my destiny and I will have to live with it. There surely is anger among youth against the injustice perpetrated by the state and the reaction comes out in the form of protests including stone pelting and that is the least kind of resistance from our side but even then we have to face bullets and pellets,” says Bilal.

Aadil Hussain, 15, from Aadipora, Sopore, had been hit with pellets when he went out to get some fresh air as the forces had fired pepper gas to disperse the protestors.

Dr Gowhar Nabi Gora is a vet and has chiseled out a variety of stones to highlight the pain of pellet victims of Kashmir. “I wanted to show human suffering. I have been collecting pebbles from 2010 and last year these pellet-hit victims caught my attention. I tried my hand on it, focusing on eye-wounds to symbolize their pain. I made some 10-15 pieces of eyes, pellets and victims,” he tells Caravan Daily.
Dr Gowhar Nabi Gora has chiseled out a variety of stones to highlight the pain of pellet victims of Kashmir. Image Baseera Rafiqui/Caravan Daily

Donning black goggles, Hussain says, “It was the evening of July 20, when I felt some irritation while breathing. The police had fired pepper gas outside our house. It made staying in the room difficult, so I moved out. On the road, I saw some people protesting and shouting. Security forces fired few times and the gathering was scattered. I too went back to my house and I realised I was not able to see anything clearly. I was taken to a doctor and an emergency operation was conducted at the SMHS Srinagar. The doctors removed pellets from my face, eyes and shoulders.”

Another piece of art by Dr Gora created out of a pellet. Image Baseera Rafiqui/Caravan Daily

After a few round of surgeries, Hussain was discharged from the hospital with partial blindness in both of his eyes.

“You don’t feel when you are hit by pellets, unlike bullets but these are more fatal and if they remain inside your body it continues to harm you,” says Hussain.

“Why do they use pellets and bullets on unarmed people? Why are people robbed of their right to protest, if it is peaceful? Why aren’t we treated like humans here? I believe that we have the right to speak up against injustice. This is causing more anger within the common people,” adds Hussain, who wanted to become a civil servant, but now thinks that even clearing a Board exam would be a tough task.

Insha Mushtaq Malik, 14, was standing by the window of her village home watching protesters and troops skirmish when more than 100 pellets hit her face. She lost both eyes.

“Everything looks dark and black,” she says, as smiles and sadness take turns flitting across her face. Five months after she lost her eyes, Malik is still learning how to deal with her loss, both emotionally and practically. She needs help with everything, including climbing the stairs, going to the bathroom and getting dressed.

Bilal, Hussain and Malik have all been left injured for the rest of their lives for no fault of theirs. There are hundreds of such cases with permanent blindness or partially damaged eyes in Kashmir Valley.

The number of young boys and girls hit by pellets in the eyes has inspired artists from the Valley to portray their pain and agony through their art.

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International groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for an end to the use of shotguns, which shower pellets widely. Even, Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh cautioned security forces last year to minimize use of the weapons, but that warning had little apparent effect

Dr Gowhar Nabi Gora is a vet and has chiseled out a variety of stones to highlight the pain of pellet victims of Kashmir. “I wanted to show human suffering. I have been collecting pebbles from 2010 and last year these pellet-hit victims caught my attention. I tried my hand on it, focusing on eye-wounds to symbolize their pain. I made some 10-15 pieces of eyes, pellets and victims,” he tells Caravan Daily.

For Gora, art is an expression, and he finds in stones a way of venting his pain and present his sentiments. “Obviously, there is anger in everyone here; artists express it through their work, be it a painting, write-up or sculpture. I have also tried to express the pain through my little efforts,” says Dr Gora.


Baseera Rafiqi is a Kashmiri writer and blogger focusing on human rights issues

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