Shot in Darkness

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Even after he raised his camera in the air to prove his identity, an indifferent cop shot a full cartridge of pellets at his face. With his one eye almost completely damaged Xuhaib, a professional photographer, struggles to stay sane, reports Aabid Hussain

On September 4, 2016, Xuhaib Maqbool Hamza, a young freelance photographer, was covering protests in Srinagar’s Ranawari area when a JKP cop raised his pellet gun, aimed at his face, and fired.

“It all happened in less than 20 seconds, but these 20 seconds changed my life forever,” said Xuhaib, whose big dark googles hide his injured eye but not the pain he suffers inside.

Xuhaib can’t still sleep; he still wakes up as the nightmares of his injury dominate his mind.

“When I try to sleep I see the cop targeting my other eye now,” said Xuhaib.

Xuhaib struggles to differentiate himself from those who were pelting stone on government forces that day.

After the injury Xuhaib confined himself to his room as he cannot move around like he used to be. His dark room became his abode where he thought he would erase bad memories!

For fifteen days Xuhaib slept on his back, trying to keep his face straight so that different ointments can be administered. “I was told if I move my eye will get damaged,” recalls Xuhaib.

Initially, Xuhaib was not allowed to use any light in his room as it would have caused irritation. “I am thankful to Allah those days are over,” recalls Xuhaib.

After spending almost six months in that darkroom, Xuhaib installed seven LED lamps in his room to overcome his nightmares. “However, it feels darkness has become a permanent part of my life.”

Xuhaib’s pain and helplessness was felt by his entire family, who would spend sleepless nights trying to console their only son.

Xuhaib still remember how his sister would stay awake with him all night when he was asked to sleep on his stomach without making major movements. “For fifteen days I lay still like a corpse,” said Xuhaib as tears fill his eyes. “She would pat my head whenever I felt like moving it. I might have slept for a few hours but she didn’t.”

Xuhaib has just one question on his lips ever since he was hit by pellets: why can’t he (cop) differentiate between a photographer and a stone-pelter. “I even raised my camera in the air to let him (cop) know who I am.”

Xuhaib still recalls he was standing just 30 feet away from the cop; a distance he thinks could have given him idea about his profession.  “In a jiffy my camera was broken and I was pushed into darkness,” said Xuhaib.

After Xuhaib raised his camera, he was sure the cop will not shoot him, as they both were doing their duties. Movements before Xuhaib was shot, he called his colleagues to the spot as it felt safe for a photographer.

“I did not even move my head when he shot the pellet as I was confident he will not target me,” Xuhaib recalls.

After he was hit by a pellet Xuhaib ran towards his colleagues asking them if his eyes are safe. “I was crying as I thought my both eyes are damaged. But my friends assured me I am fine.”

Xuhaib doesn’t remember how he reached the hospital. “When I regained my conscious I was on a stretcher and everyone was rushing.”

Xuhaib remembers how he used to go out with his friends, then for six months he was all alone.

“How it feels when day turns into night and the street goes dark,” said Xuhaib with tears in his eyes.

There are still more than 200 pellets in his body as doctors could remove just a few from his eyes. “When I scratch my body I get pellets in my nails.”

When Xuhaib first took photography as profession, the kids in Rainawari area, would circle him for advice. “I was their hero,” said Xuhaib. “Now same kids help me move around by holding my hand.”

To kill his time Xuhaib keeps himself busy with mundane things. “I change my phone’s cover after every half-an-hour,” he said while pointing towards a heap of mobile covers. “If I am idle I start getting nightmares about that day.”

At times Xuhaib puts on his gear as he imagines himself on the ground covering protests. Xuhaib recently tried to fit tempered glasses, used on mobile phones to protect screens, into his goggles thinking it will protect his eyes from pellets. “I do such things to vent out my frustration, else I fear I might lose interest in life,” said Xuhaib.

Everyday Xuhaib visits his maternal home to run away from the emptiness of life. “I might have shaved my head over a dozen times since, but at the end of the day I feel empty.”

When Xuhaib was hit by pellets someone standing nearby recorded his cries on his phone. “I cannot listen to the recording. It is painful.”

Almost every evening Xuhaib drives all the way to Nishat, and starts clicking pictures of Dal Lake on his mobile phone. “I come here to kill my time and stay connected with photography,” said Xuhaib whose professional camera was damaged by pellets.

The reason Xuhaib visits Nishat frequently are its two lane boulevard road, which makes driving easy with just one functional eye. “Earlier I used to visit this place with my friends regularly for photography,” said Xuhaib.

At times, haunted by nightmares, Xuhaib slips out of his house in the middle of the night to spend some solitary moments by lake side.

“Even if they cut down my legs, I will still crawl but will never leave my profession, even if they will cut my arms I will wrap my camera and will click with my forehead,” said Xuhaib.

Xuhaib, who has been always at the forefront covering protests, now frets at the sound of tear-smoke shells and bullets. “I now fear a lot. I run away and hide myself at a safe spot,” said Xuhaib.

Xuhaib is keen to resume his life and work again, but it is not easy. “I won’t go out without proper gear and protection as I don’t trust these cops anymore.”

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