Eye Protest

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With over a hundred pellet eye injuries in five days, it is all dark in Srinagar’s ophthalmology ward of SMHS. Shams Irfan spends two days at the hospital to understand the level of devastation that left over three dozen boys blind forever

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X-ray image of a pellet injury patient.

Amid sunken faces, swollen bloody eyes guarded by colourful shades, hand towels and bandanas, the silence inside Ward No 16 of SMHS hospital Srinagar is occasionally broken by five-year-old Zohra’s giggles. “Please take my picture and send it to my friends,” Zohra requests visitors.

Located at the corner of the ward, Zohra’s bed has registered maximum visitors since Monday morning. “People come to see how they (forces) can fire pellet on a 5-year-old girl,” said her mother.

On July 10, at 10:45 pm, Zohra’s father was near the front gate of his house in Qamarwari, Srinagar, preparing to take his elder daughter to hospital. She was not keeping well.

Not knowing about police’ presence outside, when Zohra’s mother opened the gate, little girl ran after her.

“Without warning they (police) shot from pellet gun (hunter gun) towards us,” said Zohra’s mother.

What followed the loud bang was volley of small sharp edged led pellets. Twelve pierced Zohra’s body. Almost two dozen hit her elder sister Sobiya on her legs. Sobiya, 21, is lying on the bed opposite Zohra.

Despite 12 pellets still inside her body Zohra manages to bring smile on people's faces.

Despite 12 pellets still inside her body five-year-old Zohra manages to bring smile on people’s faces.

An elderly visitor stops by and offers Zohra a small tetra pack of apple juice. She takes it with a smile. Between sips, she tells this reporter:  “Main Burhan bhai ko bolu ge policewalo ne mujhe mara (I will tell Burhan that policemen have beaten me).”

This sends everybody laughing inside the ward. A painful smile also crosses Mohammad Imran Parray’s face. Imran, 18, a Class 11 student, who hails from Athoura in Baramullah district, has around 30 pellets in his face, including ones in his lower lip.

On July 10, 2016, two days after Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani was killed in an encounter in Bamdoora village of south Kashmir’s Islamabad district, Imran, along with a few hundred other boys, was on his way to home when forces from Choura Camp started charging towards the youngsters. “It was unprovoked,” recalls Imran, trying his best not to disturb small pellet pieces still inside his face.

Before Imran could have taken refuge somewhere safe, a cop emerged from the police station, which is adjacent to the army camp, and fired pellet gun straight at his face. “I was like being stung by hundred of bees simultaneously,” recalls Imran.

With everything turning black in front of his eyes, Imran, who was lying on the ground, could hear sound of tear shells exploding nearby. “Somebody picked me up and tossed me into a vehicle,” said Imran.

First he was taken to nearby health centre in Kreeri village, but as specialised treatment for pellet injuries is available only at SMHS hospital, Imran was referred to Srinagar. “They (doctors) however made a few unsuccessful attempts to get pellets out at Kreeri,” said Imran’s father who was sitting on the cement floor crying silently near his son’s bed.

Pellet-Hit-young-Boy

Once at SMHS hospital Imran became patient number 75.

“Since Saturday morning we have received 116 pellet injury cases,” said a senior ophthalmologist at SHMS’ hospital Srinagar who refused to give his name. “Half of them will lose their eyesight forever.”

On the other end of the same ward, Umar Nazir, 12, a Class 6 student, who lives in Rajpora area of south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, is struggling to keep hands off his eyes. “It itches badly,” he says in a barely audible voice.

Despite pain, he greets every visitor, Salam Alaikum. Umar was shot in the face and abdomen when CRPF men from Haal camp in Pulwama outskirts fired on protestors. “I was lucky to survive,” said Umar. The firing left one protestor dead.

Umar who continuously complains of pain in his abdomen was referred to SHMS hospital from Pulwama on 9 July. Since then he is battling with pain in Ward no 16.

This boy was hit in the face by a pellet gunshot.

This 16-year-old boy was hit in the face by a pellet gunshot.

Doctors attending Umar say that his right eye is completely damaged. “We are trying to save the other one now,” said the doctor. “We managed to get around 50 pellets from his abdomen. But those in his eyes and face are still inside.”

As we speak a number of people, mostly strangers from areas in SMHS’ vicinity visit Umar. One of the strangers, who had visited Umar in the morning, was back with a pair of t-shirts and pants for him. After leaving the bag at his bedside the stranger leaves without saying a word.

Like Umar, his father, a labourer, who accompanied him to the hospital on Saturday, greets everyone with a smile, and thanks them when they leave. “This is young blood. They will react to injustice and atrocities,” said Umar’s father plainly.

As one walks between the neatly lined beds in Ward No 8, boys accompanying pellet injury patients look at every stranger with suspicion.

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Tabish’s right eye is completely damaged. Doctors trying to save the left one.

Tabish Rafiq, 16, a Class 10 student who hails from Namlabal in Pampore town, is struggling to sleep. However, unmindful of Tabish’s insomnia, his 15-month-old sister Tamna is sleeping peacefully holding his arm. Sitting on the edge of the bed, their mother Bhat Shehzada is trying in vain to keep flies off with a handfan.  “I just stepped out to offer water to my maternal uncle when CRPF personnel fired at me directly,” recalls Tabish.

Tabish’s expressions change quickly as he recalls the moment when pellet hit his eyes. “It was as if somebody had poured hot-oil inside my eyes,” said Tabish. Despite two emergency surgeries on July 9, doctors couldn’t save his right eye. “We are now trying to save the left one,” said his doctor.

Tabish’s mother was told by a senior doctor that if at all he is able to see from his left eye, it won’t be before six weeks at least. “We are told to stay here for at least two more weeks,” said Shehzada, who is struggling to shuttle between home and hospital. “My two other sons are back home with their uncle. They haven’t seen me in last three days.”

Pellet-injuries-(6)

On the opposite bed, newly married Naseema, 23, is anxiously watching her husband eat lunch. “We have nothing to say. He was not hit by pellet,” she shots quickly when a stranger stopped by to enquire.

However, her husband Shahid, 25, who was the first pellet victim to reach Srinagar from south Kashmir’s Shopian district, cuts her short. “I am not afraid of anyone. We all have to die one day. Let him ask whatever he wants to know.”

Shahid, a labourer by profession, recalls the details of July 9, vividly. “I was part of a peaceful procession,” claims Shahid. At Keller village, some 14 kms from Shopian town, the procession came face-to-face with huge contingent of army, CRPF and police. “We told them (forces) let us pass peacefully,” said Shahid. And they agreed. But when the procession came within firing range, they broke their promise. “To our shock they started firing pellets in all directions.”

Shahid recalls people picking him up and taking him to district hospital Shopian. “There were five other guys who were shot by pellet gun,” said Shahid.

Pellet-injuries-(1)

At Shopian, without touching their wounds, Shahid and others were given an ambulance and referred to Srinagar. “At Beloow camp in Rajpura CRPF stopped our ambulance and dragged us out,” said Shahid. “Then one by one we were beaten.”

Only after locals shouted from a distance and raised hue and cry, the CRPF men ran away. “Once again the brave driver arranged all six of us inside the ambulance and sped off towards Srinagar,” said Shahid.

But the journey was far from over for Shahid and other injured. “At Pampore we were once again taken down and beaten,” said Shahid. “Here I passed out. Next I woke up in SMHS.”

After three hours of painful journey, when Shahid finally reached Srinagar, doctors successfully removed four pellets from his left eye. “We are not yet sure if he can see again,” said a doctor.

Pellet-injuries-(4)

Shahid still has pellets inside his entire upper body. “My wife has removed a few successfully with her hands,” said Shahid with a smile.

Shahid’s wife, who was listening keenly to her husband narrate his ordeal asked him innocently, “I have heard these pellet guns are originally meant to hunt animals. Is it true?”

After a brief pause, Shahid takes off dark glasses hiding his injured eye, and looks at his wife’s concerned face, as if admiring her innocence. “Yes. They are hunting us.”

Shahid’s neighbour in the ward, a 17-year-old boy from Khanyar, who refused to give his name fearing he might be tracked down by the police added gleefully, “And they enjoy hunting.”

Note: Some of the names in the story have been changed on request.

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