Brothers in dark

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After they were blinded in 2016 summer, they struggled in hospitals to manage their vision but failed. Then they survived on the sympathies, kind words and possibility of support by the society and the government. As the life dictated its own priorities on ‘visionaries’ and the blind, the four pellet blinds felt the pain of neglect as Kashmir’s new underdogs. Muhammad Younis tells the ‘never say die’ story of these young men who struggled to set up a Trust for the welfare of all the pellet blinds

They are friends who do not know each other by face. They all need support for every single step. They all have suicidal tendencies. None of them has capacity to earn and their dependence on other is immense. In order to prevent the negativity entrap them, they fill each other with positivity. To unburden their “loaded chests”, they find no one better to understand their pain. They crack a joke, even if it is not funny enough, they still manage to chuckle. They have developed a little world for themselves, because the big one they had once conjured up has been shattered to shambles.

This is the story about four people, who, except one, don’t know each other by face, but still they extend hand to each other. From diverse backgrounds, the foursome befriended each other after they lost the capacity to see, precisely after they were blinded.

In the District Court premises at Mominabad, Srinagar, the quadruple have gathered to get mandatory sanction for setting up of a Trust for themselves and their likewise “brethren”, sailing in the same boat. They want the NGO, they are planning to set up, will work exclusively for the welfare of the people who were blinded in Kashmir, over the years. Muhammad Ashraf Wani has travelled all the way from Rohmoo Pulwama, Firdous Ahmad Dar and Imtiyaz Ahmad Sofi from Mazbugh Sopore, and Muhammad Salim Malik from Kralpora Kupwara.

“For a while, people were  passionate to come and help us. Then gradually all of that started to fade out. Now, society barely talks about us. I don’t blame people, everyone is swamped by his own life, and I feel it is time for us to do something on our own,” says Ashraf, 28. He is the only one among the four, whose vision in one eye has fully recovered. His three colleagues have no vision, they are completely blind. “I had three pellets in my left eye, one in the right one. My left one has recovered. But I am not able to see anything through the right one.”

On  August 24, more than a month after the killing of Burhan Wani in July 2016, a “peaceful” protest rally occurred in Rohmoo. But soon the police and paramilitary swarmed the place to “quell any law and order situation”, the rally turned violent. In the subsequent melee, Ashraf received a police bullet on the right side of his chest. “I don’t understand how I survived. People had seen me all soaked up in blood. They had thought I wouldn’t be able to make it. But somehow, by the grace of Almighty, I survived.”

Three months later, November 31, when Ashraf was still bedridden, recovering from the operation done on him, police raided his village. “They were looking for the people, involved in protests. Fearing that they might detain me, I was taken away by two of my friends to safety. I wasn’t even able to stand up by myself then,” Ashraf said.

After reaching near Nilgan Karewas, one and a half kilometre away from Rohmoo, Ashraf and his friends stopped to help him breathe easy and take a bit of rest. “They thought the place was safer. Hardly had they known that there was no safer place for me that day,” Recalls Ashraf. Quarter of an hour later, the forces, which had fanned out in the area, once found the trio shot pellets at them. Ashraf’s friends fled away and were fortunate enough to save themselves, but he, given his condition, could not.

“All over my body, there were pellets,” says Ashraf, showing the stitches strewn all across his body. He said he has more than hundred stitched up cuts. “The pellets had gone so deep that the doctors had to cut my body to get them out.”

Ashraf was even diagnosed by the doctors as a victim of some rare heart crisis because the pellets had even reached much closer to his heart.

Ashraf is the eldest son of the family, comprising his mother, 60, three sisters and a little brother. He was only 10 years old, when his father had died. Apart from a little orchard of apples, Ashraf worked as a bill collector  for Airtel in his area, “to keep the Chula of his family burning.”

Before the 2016 incidents overtook him, Ashraf says he was preparing for his graduation examinations. “I wanted to apply for a secure job after exams. Now neither I can complete my graduation nor I find myself eligible for any kind of job,” says Ashraf, wearing a melancholic face. “Right now, my family is surviving on the debt given by the apple merchant, we sell our apples to.”

Ashraf is not the only victim of pellets in his area. There are more than a dozen people with same problem. “My area has six victims who are completely blind, including one girl. The rest, including two girls have partially recovered.”

Till now, Ashraf’s house has been raided by police four times. “Even by taking the vision from my eyes, they are still not satisfied enough… they have torn off my whole body, when are they going to spare me now,” asks emotional Ashraf.

“Soon Inshallah,” Firdous, who is sitting close to him on a bench inside the premises of the court, tells him, while his hands search for his shoulders to pat them.

Last time, when Firdous, 26, had a chance to see again, he frantically ran homewards to find his parents, but as soon as he essayed to open the main door of his home, he shook awake. It was only a dream which he got disconnected with. His eyes were still not able to see anything; particularly his parents. All the time, they are there in front of him, talking to him, seeing him, but he is unable to reciprocate. In the room, he was sleeping at, he wept bitterly; not loudly though; he didn’t want his parents to know about it.

It was July 15, 2016, when Firdous lost his eyesight. That day he was sent by his mother to a local grocery shop, situated in their Mazbug village, 3 kms away from Sopore, to fetch some vegetables. All huffed up by the protesters at the main town, a CRPF regiment, while returning, once found a bearded person (Firdous) on the road, and unleashed all their anger at him. They stopped him and then fired him with pellets. Firdous returned home, not with the thing he had been asked for, but a dozen pellets in both his eyes, almost six in each eye.

 “Before going to the shop, if I had known that it would be the last time to see my mother, I would have seen her for long,” says Firdous. His eyes which have possibly gone wet as he sobs, rest for most of the time behind the dark coloured goggles. “I am not able to bear the sunlight.”

Before going blind, Firdos also used to be the sole bread earner of his family. In 2011, because of the circumstances at house, Firdous, then a twelfth class student, had to give up his studies and look after his family, comprising, apart from his parents, three little siblings. He has one sister, enrolled in tenth class, two brothers, 10 and 8 years old.

In 2002, Firdous’s father, Gulzar Ahmad Dar, a professional tailor, was interrogated by the government forces during a crackdown in their village. “The cordon was laid for militants. When they found none, they took my father and beat him to pulp for no reason.”

Both the legs and arms of Gulzar got badly bruised during the torture, because of which he developed deformity. Doctors advised him not to do any heavy work.  “He still took up the pains and nourished us. But as he grew old and feeble, I couldn’t endure his pains anymore. I quit my studies and took the responsibility of my family.”

Firdous’s family had two kanals of land, which his father worked on to meet both the ends. But as the kids grew up, Firdous found the land falling short to meet the purpose. Eventually he reached the decision to sell it off.  From the amount fetched, he bought an auto.

“From 2011 to 2016, working as much as I could, I was able to afford better living for my family. I didn’t know that soon they would have to take care of me. Everything is disturbed now. How would they live their dreams or look after their ailing brother?” asks Firdous.

Firdous was one among those pellet victims, whom the state government had promised to take care off in reputed hospitals outside Kashmir. The air travels for the same even made headlines for quite some time, but according to Firdous, nothing but more misery they ran into.

“I’m not denying the fact that the government did spend money for our air tickets, but for the treatment it was only the Kashmiri brothers, residing in Delhi, who collected money for us. The bragging of the government on our treatment was all fiasco.”

Firdous says that the financial condition at his house has gone so worse that they are deciding to sell even the auto now. “My cousin brother, who is working in the apple mandi Sopore has been taking care of me since the unfortunate incident. But it now feels awkward to burden him more. He has his own family to take care of.”

“If the judge sahab gives nod to our Trust, and Inshallah he will, we will be able to do something on our own,” says a good looking Saleem. He is 24. A day ago, he was brought by his father here. To go back, they didn’t have enough money to pay a full fare. His father left him with the other three until he would arrange some money, he had said.

Saleem recalls when he, doing a Shawl Business at Amritsar, used to buy clothes, bakery and other things for his family on the day of Eid. “I used to spend four to five thousand rupees on each Eid. And now, like last three Eid’s I know that this one too would be without any new clothes for my sisters,” Saleem said. He has two sisters. One has memorised entire Koran, other is pursuing Aalmiat in a Darul Uloom at Kupwara.

On August 5, 2016, after the congregational Friday prayers at the village, a protest rally was carried out by people from Jamia Masjid, Kralpora Kupwara, which the police and paramilitary forces responded with tear gas shells and pellets. It was in this rally, Saleem’s both eyes received pellets, and since then he isn’t able to see anymore.

Till now, all of the money, Saleem had been saving for years, was spent on his treatment. So far surguries  costing Rs 7 lakh, have been done on him at Hyderabad hospital. “Doctors said my retina was entirely damaged, and there were very low chances for the recovery of my vision,” Saleem said. “But the last surgery brought me a little bit hope.” By using a circular magnifier, which when he keeps  it close to his eyes, he is able to identify words.

Saleem has to go to Hyderabad for another surgery on September 10,, for which he has no money by now. The surgery is going to cost him another one lakh rupee.  “Pray that I get my vision back. My father is above 60. In this old age, he has started to work in a stone quarry. I want to get well soon, so that he doesnt have to work.”

“Allah won’t test us this much,” Imtiyaz, 20, consoles his friend. Last year, on the day of Eid ul Azha, when people were celebrating, the doctors were struggling in Srinagar’s SMHS hospital to save Imtiyaz’s eyes. They could not.

On  September 13, 2016,  after the Eid prayers in Eidgah Sopore, were over, a protest rally was marshalled by police at half past eleven. Bullets and pellets replaced the sound of crackers. People ran for their lives. Imtiyaz, then 19, was rolling his body in the dust on the ground. He wasn’t able to stand, because of the pain in his eyes.

“I was hearing the chaos going on: those screams and all. But I couldn’t run away to safety. But darkness lay before my eyes,” Imtiaz remembers.

He was brought to SMHS hospital. And in ward 8, he remained bedridden for weeks together.

Ghulam Mohideen Sofi, Imtiyaz’s father, in his eighties, was not financially sound enough to get his son treated all by himself. The situation reached to such an extent that he decided to sell his house; the only property the family had. Learning about it, his neighbours and the religious organisations, working in the villagers collected Rs 30, 000 for the treatment. “If they hadn’t been with us at that crucial time, I don’t know what would have we suffered.”

When Imtiyaz was in fourth primary, he discontinued his studies. He joined his elder brother, Riyaz Ahmad, who was till then the sole caretaker of the family. “Our father was too old to work, so my brother, a little older than me, started to work at an auto workshop. Because he wasn’t able to make enough money for the family, including apart from our parents two little sisters, studying in ninth and twelfth classes, I joined him too.”

It was very soon that Riyaz had to start all again by himself. The only difference is the meagre amount of money he used to spend on the family has to spend on his little brother now. In a month, Imtiyaz’s medicine costs Rs 2000.

Riyaz is all up to brave the pressure that has befallen him, provided his little brother would see the world once again. “My brother offered to donate one of his eyes, but I refused. I don’t want him to share the pain I am going through.” Imtiyaz breaks into tears. “He is my brother. I love him so much,” he sobs.

On September 11, Imtiyaz is also leaving for Hyderabad for another surgery. By now he has been operated five times. According to him, he felt a little improvement after the last surgery. “Before the last surgery, I wasn’t able to see anything, but now if a person is sitting in front of me, a blurred outlines of him I can find,” Imtiaz said.

“If Allah wishes, we all will be able to see the world again,” the quadruple said in unison. “At this point of time, we need prayers from our people.”

After a wait of a couple of hours, the judge finally summons the four. Hand in hand, as they conduct each other into the courtroom, people cast sympathetic glances at them. Once they (people) get to know that the four are the pellet victims, their sympathy surges.

After getting confirmed about their disability, the judge finally gives a nod to their Trust.

“We are very happy. Not just ourselves, now we will be able to work for the rehabilitation of the others of us also.”

Post-registration, if this Trust named J&K Pellet Welfare Trust actually takes off, this will be Kashmir history first such initiative that was done by seven dead eyes, one live eye and Saleem Malik’s sensor stick. It is this stick and this eye that the four use in their movement and reading documents once they are together, far away from their homes, in Srinagar or elsewhere.

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