A number of students who were hit by the pellets during last two unrests have faced problems in continuation of their studies. While most of them have dropped out, some of them have actually fought odds to complete the basic studies, reports Faisal Ahmed Fazeel
A single-storey house stands on the banks of River Jhelum in Srinagar’s congested downtown. Inside the house, Faizan Ahmed Bhat, 14, sits desolated in a dark corner of his room. Hesitant to speak, he repeatedly gazed down the floor. It takes quite an effort to get him to talk.
“It’s not complete blindness. I can see from one eye,” Faizan lifts his head and says in a despaired voice while finally breaking his silence. Faizan is a pellet victim.
Pellets are made of lead or Iron. Irregular in shape, their rough edges cause unpredictable damage when they hit sensitive parts of the body, doctors say. Pellets are particularly destructive when they enter the eyes. The soft tissue of the retina is irreparably destroyed by the trauma of high-velocity lead pellets.
Faizan was hit by pellets, a day after the killing of a militant Zakir Musa in Tral.
Like most of the pellet victims, Faizan vividly recalls the event that forced him to quit his studies, at least for the time being. “It was May 24, and there was a valley-wide curfew. I was coming back after attending tuition classes nearby,” remembers Faizan.
By the time Faizan reached near Old HabbaKadal, located close to his home, he found the area transformed into a battleground. Young boys like him were pelting stones on paramilitary forces deployed there. In response, the CRPF was firing tear-smoke and pepper gas shells. The air was heavy with smoke. With home barely a few meters away, Faizan quickly ran into an alley he thought was safe. But he was wrong.
“I saw a police van reversing towards me. It came fast inching closer to me,” Faizan said. Before he could have reacted, a policeman sitting inside the van, stuck the barrel of his hunter gun out through the tiny holes of the caged window and fired. “He fired twice.” The first shot was badly aimed but few pellets managed to smash his eye and face. He ran in screams and blood. “Another pellet cartridge was shot quickly after the first one,” Faizan said. This one pierced the muscle of Faizan’s left shoulder. He sprinted home under “unspeakable pain” before the world went dark in front of him. He collapsed at some distance.
After the horrific night, Faizan prefers the company of dark. In his room, the lights are dim, the windows are shut and silence is preferred. His mother’s heart grieves for his changed behaviour. The pellets morphed her son into a cold and harsh person.
After the pellet injury, he took a forced long break from his classes. His dark purple school bag hasn’t been unzipped after the horrific night and finds a spot in another corner of the same room.
“It’s not complete blindness. I can see from one eye. I will continue my studies,” says Faizan.
Though the boy is determined to resume his studies, he is unaware of the struggle he may have to put in.
But Faizan is not alone. Even Ahsaan Basheer, 17, was determined to continue his studies, after he was shot with a pellet gun on July 11, 2017. The pellets tore the retina of his eye, leaving him partially blind. Some 300 pellets found landed in Ahsaan’s body and face whilst five pierced deep into his eyes. He underwent several surgeries, but three pellets are still stuck deep inside his right eye. Doctors haven’t been able to remove them as it involves high risks.
His tenth-grade examinations were due a month after the incident. But he couldn’t sit for the examinations; he lost vision and an academic year. In the following year, he resumed the studies whilst bearing the consequences.
“I’m unable to concentrate for more than ten minutes,” Ahsaan said. His books lie open, but most of the times, Ahsaan is occupied, pondering over his fate and how it transformed abruptly.
Ahsaan attends school regularly with pelleted eyes and has to occupy the first bench. He faces difficulty in concentrating on the blackboard; eventually, his eyes turn red and watery. “Whenever I’m out in the sun, my eyes burn, as if put in a fire pit because the metal deep inside gets heated up.”
However, Ahsaan sat in his examinations privately and came out with flying colours. He wishes to be a journalist in the future.
Due to the pellet injuries, the young men and primary breadwinners of families fail to earn a living, rather they become a liability for their families. Imtiyaz Ahmed, 24, shrieks over his fate. During the 2016 unrest, Imtiyaz came into the range of police action. His skull, forehead, and eyes were showered with pellets when he was marching in a protest.
He used to be a baker, and after several surgeries, doctors advised him to stay away from the smoke inflected area. He picked up construction labour as his profession which garners his family only half of the need. The metal inside his body doesn’t let him work effectively and consistently. “On sunny days, I couldn’t judge the bricks passed towards me,” Imtiaz said. “Sometimes, it would slip my hands and fall; during such days, I prefer staying at home.” Obviously, he loses wages for the days he does not work.
To shoulder the responsibilities of Imtiyaz, his 16-year-old brother Shahzad has given up his dreams and education. These days rather than attending school, he accompanies Imtiyaz at construction sites.
A pellet cartridge holds around 500 little iron balls, according to open-source details. When they are shot, they scatter in the air and disperse in all directions, hitting anyone in the range. The pellets which resemble like ball bearings have an uncontrollable trajectory. Effects are, therefore, indiscriminate; leaving the bystanders vulnerable to the attack.
One pellet changed the life of Firdous Ahmed Kumar. Firdous was the student of ninth class when a metal ball ripped his left eye snatching his vision. “The date was July 22, 2016, the most volatile year when Burhan was killed,” Firdous remember the day with acute accuracy.
The clashes erupted outside his home in Hadipura of Baramulla. Seeing his sister move towards the gate, he ran to pull her back. In a snap, just one pellet smashed his eye, making him partially blind.
For Firdous, then a student, it was a life-changing incident. Instead of attending school, he had to spend three months in the hospital and undergo several surgeries. Firdous lives with one pellet embedded in his eye forever.
However, from ninth grade, he was promoted to tenth grade that year. But school life wasn’t the same. The reflections on whiteboard disturbed his gaze. His eyes had to rest behind the dark-tinted glasses.
Firdous appeared for his tenth standard examination in 2017 but failed to clear three of the five subjects. In 2018, he reappeared in the examination – two subjects got cleared but one remained. Finally, this year he cleared his tenth grade. “I would continue my studies whatsoever,” said Firdous, hiding his pellet-hit eye behind the yellow-tinted glasses.
In the 2016 unrest, the streets were dominated by anti-India protests and the CRPF and Police responded with a pump-action pellet gun. But participating in the protests was not the key reason for landing into the range of the pellets.
It was October 2, 2016. In the outskirts of Baramulla district, inside the gate of a single-storied house in Andergam, a 15-year-old skinny girl clad in hijab, Ulfat Hamid became a pellet victim.
Her family spent over Rs 2.5 lakhs on her treatment which included two surgeries but Ulfat’s left eye could not be saved.
Ulfat had lost her elder brother a few years ago. Her father is a labourer. It was difficult for him to meet the needs of his family of five. Ulfat along with her studies took up tailoring to share the burden of her father. She used to earn around Rs 9,000 a month. After the tragedy, she didn’t just lose her sight but also the ability to go to school and to work.
“After the blindness, I am unable to study or work. I try to study but my eyes hurt,” Ulfat said. While studying in grade 10, pellets penetrated her eye. She desired to pursue higher studies and dreamed of becoming a teacher. But the dreams won’t be fulfilled. “I get nightmares of being shot with pellets again and again. I wake up with a terrible headache.”
Bilal Ahmed Bhat, Umar Nisar Shoosha and Saqib Shakeel Dar, a trio bestie, have lost vision to pellets. The trio studied in tenth grade prior to the incident. Now it is only Umar who continues the education now. His two buddies have dropped out.
They were protesting on the streets of Sopore. Pellets rained everywhere on them. Their body, eyes, and face. The severe complication in their eyes forced them to discontinue further studies, except Umar who was admitted back in the school. Umar with embedded pellet in his eyes attended school in the next academic year and cleared his examinations in 2017.
Umar wished to pursue medical or engineering in higher classes but the metal in his eye destroyed his dreams. He resorted to studying humanities. His new dream is to pursue law. “It needs meticulous concentration to study medicine or engineering; these pellets don’t let me give my best,” Umar said. “They have ruined the dreams of my future.”
While describing the horrors of the examination hall, Umar said: “While writing the examination, I can’t focus on more than 4 to 5 questions on a stretch. I must get up from the seat to rest for a few minutes and then I attend to other questions. Out of a hundred marks, I could only attend to not more than 50 marks.”
After pellets attack the young eyes, the school-going victims face difficulty in common chores. Reading, driving and playing with their friends turns into hard labour. A more important concern is the process of studying changes ghastly. The victims have to get closer to white or blackboard in class, but most often, the board reflects the light which hurts their gaze. They have to adapt to a new position to read. The books have to be elevated towards the eye of vision. Peeping into the books for more than ten minutes causes redness and watering of the eye. The trauma of the pellet never leaves their head.
These traumatised souls are the unnoticed victims of the Kashmir conflict; their future has been darkened forever and their dreams are shattered. They are the new underdogs of Kashmir society.
(A student of Manipal University in Karnataka, Faisal Ahmed Fazeel was an intern with Kashmir Life.)