Pellet Debts

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After their youngest son was hit by pellets at the peak of 2016 unrest, Rasheed and Wazira Sheikh borrowed a lot of money from their relatives to manage the eyesight of their son. Three surgeries could not help Asif regain his eyesight. But the calls for repaying debts are more frequent and frantic. Saqib Mir tells the story of a desperate couple who are trying everything, begging included, for getting debt free

On an August Friday, an Imam in an Islamabad mosque stopped in the midst of prayers to make a shocking announcement. Prayers over and people crowded around a 33-year-old woman sitting outside. She had spread a piece of cloth on the ground and was seeking alms.

Visibly it was clear that she was not a professional beggar, Umar Lateef Misgar, who resides near the mosque, said. Her sunken eyes and pale face depicted she was confronting a serious crisis. Once the collections were over and the crowd was thinning, she wrapped the cloth up, boarded a mini bus and left.

The woman is Wazira Banoo, a resident of Zaidipora Khanabal. She lives in a three storied concrete house with her husband and four children. That is their sole property.

The family was living a happy life before the 2016 unrest that started with the killing of Hizb teen rebel Burhan Wani. That unrest changed the family completely.

“In July 2016, police summoned my elder son Irshad Ahmad Sheikh who was then 16 years old and lodged an FIR against him on the charges of stone pelting,” Wazira said. He was arrested. Now 17, Irshad alleges the police tortured him in their custody. “Cops often used to beat me on the soles of my feet; I was not able to walk for many days. Now I am attending the court for hearings very often.”

Sheikh’s were concerned about Irshad not knowing that the family was heading towards another big trouble. On July 21, 2016, Asif Ahmad Sheikh, Wazira’s younger son, then nine years old and a student of the fourth primary, was playing at home.

The dusk was about to fall when Asif, with Rs 5 coin moved out to buy some candies for himself. “I was unaware that the road I was walking through had witnessed clashes,” Asif said. “ I was walking with two other boys who were strangers to me; the cops fired pellets at us. I felt something hot touching my face and left the side of my body, I felt blood oozing out from everywhere. At that time almost everything became invisible to me.”

As the news of the pellet attack on the minor spread, people came out of their homes and started protesting. Locals rushed the three boys to the local district hospital.

Asif’s father Abdul Rasheed, a professional labourer, got panicky and restless when he heard the news. He started running towards the hospital but locals stopped him as the hospital premises were already a battleground between the police and the protesters. Somehow two boys acceded to his request and got him in the hospital.

“I was speechless when I saw my son in blood,” Rasheed said. Termed critical, the doctors shifted to SMHS hospital Srinagar for advanced treatment. Rasheed accompanied him.

Doctors at SMHS hospital conducted a surgery in his right eye which was badly injured by pellets. After many days they shifted him to SKIMS Srinagar. At SKIMS, Asif had to go through another two surgeries in his right eye. Three surgeries drained the family, financially.

“Whatever money my wife and I had, we spent it. I had to borrow Rs 2,50,000 from my relatives for the treatment of my son but in spite of all this Asif did not regain vision in his right eye,” Rasheed said.

After Asif’s second surgery, Wazira visited her three children – Irshad 16, Shahida her 14 and Junaid 12, after 21 days.

Then, it was risky to even move on the highway because of clashes. Wazira would not have ventured out had not she met another woman in the SKIMS who volunteered to help her reach home. They left late in the night and it was pitched dark when they reached the town. From there, she started walking to her home under the moonlight. “There were cops moving in the Rakshaks and the dogs barking around and no other life form,” Wazira said. “When I opened the door of my house, my three literally pounced on me.”

They had their own reason to cry. When her kids heard the situation of Asif, they wept. When Wazir was told by her kids that they were cooking rice and eating it with chilly powder and salt, she cried.

Finally after Asif’s third surgery, he still did not regain his eyesight in his right eye. SKIMS doctors suggested Wazira to the boy to AIIMS Delhi where he will receive more advanced treatment and will perhaps regain his eye sight. Without wasting even a single moment, Rasheed take his son and left for Delhi.

AIIMS doctors decided a fourth surgery. After the surgery, they said, they will be able to tell if Asif will regain his eyesight or not. Three operations had already weakened Asif. He thought a fourth intervention could be life threatening. So, he returned home.

Between his injury on the street and his return home, two months had already elapsed. It was a happy reunion.

Intensity of the unrest declined as the trees started losing the foliage. Everybody wanted to work and manage the deficit. So did Rasheed who jumped back to his manual labour.

In March 2017, Asif went to his school. Mr and Mrs Rasheed also started thinking seriously about returning the huge amount of money back to their relatives. But Rs 2,50,000 is huge for a labourer. Rasheed has to support his family and also save for the debt repayments and the medicine of Asif.

“When I realised that my husband is not in a position to repay the borrowed money and support the family at the same time, I starting visiting mosques on Fridays, seeking help from the people,” Wazira said.  She did it for some time but not much of help was coming. Realising that it is not going to help her family, she stopped seeking alms. On four Friday’s she was out to seek help from the faithful, she could barely manage Rs 1300. She started working, instead. “Though I am suffering from severe back ailment every day I have to visit my neighbours  to  washing their clothes and cleaning their house,” Wazira said.

After seeing the miserable condition of the family, some youth in the town started helping the family. They used social websites to garner some support and help but it also did not reach the desired level.

The couple is striving hard to pay off their debts. Both are working. It remains to be seen if they can manage it well.

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