Post Pellets

What happened to those blinded by controversial hunter guns post Burhan Wani’s killing last summer? Tabish Rafiq Mir visits a few survivors to see how they are managing their lives with unhealed scars

Image Credit: Durdana Bhat

Hilal, 18, was sprayed with pellets on April 8, 2016, after the infamous graveyard desecration in Karimabad, Pulwama. The pellets hit both of his eyes, immediately blinding him in one eye, with extensive damages in the other. The burst of pellet spread to his chest too, from where he started bleeding profusely, as if his chest had spread open. “I don’t remember what happened after that,” he says.

He was immediately taken to the SMHS, Srinagar and was kept there for over ten days. Accessing his critical condition, and the lack of time, the doctors asked for him to be taken to Amritsar for treatment.

One of his eyes was completely damaged and beyond the point of resuscitation. The doctors suggested immediate treatment if they were to save vision left in the other eye. The injury on his chest had eight sutures.

When this reporter visited his house, Hilal wasn’t present. The family was worried he might have run away from home, due to the guilt of being a burden on the family.

“These are the reports. You can even take them,” said his father handing over the documents he had religiously preserved, hoping to be reimbursed someday.

The X-rays showed pellets embedded in his tissues like miniature holes in a degraded cloth, where they had done extensive damage. The entire procedure had cost him over Rs 2 lakh, having frequented Amritsar for almost five times in a row. All the surgeries on his eye were done outside Kashmir. After the fifth trip, since he didn’t have enough money left to buy a lens, he purchased a pair of goggles for three thousand rupees.

His father, who has to look after a family of seven, sold his only cow, six sheep and a tree, to be able to fund the procedure outside Kashmir. “I did it without any help from anyone,” he says with a quivering lower lip.

In the meanwhile Hilal came back, and started staring at the visitors. “I can see nothing from a distance. The things that are close to me are a blur and are indistinguishable. I mostly see silhouettes of people,” said Hilal.

He points to the grass outside the window and said, “I know that is grass, because I see there is a green space in front of me, but I do not see the grass blades like you do. Or perhaps I just remember that grass is there.”

Then after a brief moment he adds, “I doubt I can study or do anything now”.

Hilal was a student of Class 11, and had taken up arts for his education. “Why would anyone want to marry an almost blind person? I mean, he can’t even study. Neither can he do any unskilled labour. I have absolutely no idea what he is going to do now,” his father said, passing the goggles over to his son. “It is people like us who pay the price for unrest.”

One has to walk through a broken narrow kachcha road running parallel to a cold makeshift drainage, to reach an old rusting house, with mud plastered walls, dark halls, cold rooms, and a small kitchen. This is where Faisal, 14, lives.

There are children scurrying at the sight of outsiders and there are women, (still sceptical about strangers), with covered faces and inquisitive eyes, manning the houses when men are away.

Faisal has been hit in the left eye. There have been no signs of improvement despite multiple surgeries.

On the day of the injury, the armed forces (CRPF, STF, and police) had surrounded the area where the house is located. At 6.30 am, they started shelling in the area, waking up all those who were still asleep. “We were sleeping when the shelling started,” said his neighbour.

Faisal’s mother was standing in a corner, waiting for her son, who was out at the moment. A huge stack of books in a corner, behind a curtain, looks like they hadn’t been dusted for a very long time. The window facing some overhanging electric wires overlooks a road.

Faisal’s elder brother Amir, 18, who is a Pashmina worker, is the sole bread winner of the family. Their father is no longer capable of making a living, since he is old and suffering from a few ailments.

On that day, Amir was picked when he was on his way home. He was taken to the police station Pulwama, where he was slapped with PSA. “I went after them when they took my brother, and I was with at least 16 people. They shot at us without warning and suddenly, there were pellets and chaos everywhere,” remembers Faisal.  Amir was shifted to Kathua jail where he was kept for four months.

Back home, his younger brother Faisal, had gone through two surgeries. From here, he was referred to the AIIMS hospital in Delhi. Along with his maternal uncle, Faisal left the state and went to Delhi for further treatment.

At AIIMS, the doctors refused to treat him further. “They did not think that there was anything they could do,” he said. They had told Faisal there is no place in the world where he could be treated. “I liked science. I mean, I still do but there isn’t much I can do about that now,” says Faisal with his cheeks twitching. “When I was in Delhi, I couldn’t even sleep. The pollution added to the misery. I could barely walk without running into something or tearing up.”

Faisal’s family has sold their land for his treatment and the trip to AIIMS Delhi.

Same day Faisal’s neighbour Gulzar was hit in the eye with pellets. A father of two young children, Gulzar recalls the events of that day vividly.  “There were CRPF, RR, STF, and even local police. When shelling started my little daughter got very scared. I had just woken up from sleep after hearing the loud bangs. I knew she would panic. She usually does. So, I got out and took her to my brother’s house which is a walking distance from here. When I was coming back home to be with my family, I got shot.”

He was taken to a local hospital where he was “treated” for his injury.  “The doctors said I was fine but I don’t feel fine.”

The first surgery was done on the same day, and the next one was done a month later. “A week ago, the doctor told me that it’s not going to get better”. There is a nerve tear, and a visible pellet mark in the eye. Gulzar is, rather was, a carpenter by profession.

“I have not studied. I have not even had the basic school education. If my job was that of a clerk, or some light labour, I could have managed. But, with my limits, I can only be a carpenter.”

Mehbooba Begum is a mother of three and she was shot at through her kitchen window. On September 23, 2016, curfew was relaxed in the afternoon. Mehbooba was in kitchen with her daughter Janat-ul-Fiza, a Class 5 student, and two more members of the family. The kitchen window overlooks the street with a small drainage canal and about ten feet of a mud road. “Due to some agitation near a nearby bridge, the STF came here. They turned to me and shot at the window. Before I had time to react, the burst of pellets tore through the glass pane and hit me. Splinters of wood were flying and the outer window was shattered,” she remembers. Her daughter Janat was also hit in the forehead. So was her husband’s sister Afroza.

When this reporter asked Janat about the incident, she looked towards her aunt Afroza for approval and said “Mummy was making tea for us in the kitchen. Suddenly there was some noise and I heard the window breaking. Mummy fell backwards soon after and almost everyone in the room was hit with pellets. It was the STF.”

Mehbooba was taken to a private hospital in Amritsar, where she claimed to have spent around Rs 50,000.

After Mehbooba was hit locals called an ambulance, which had been there in no time. Immediately after, she was taken to SMHS, Srinagar. Mehbooba has not replaced the front window. There were hundreds of miniature holes in the window, and the empty space where a glass pane had once been, was covered with polythene.

Tawseef, 18, lives in a house which looks like it had never really been fully constructed. The bricks on the inner walls of the room were clearly visible and so was the cement which had once oozed out of the spaces between them.

Within a minute, the room filled with around seven women, youngest to the oldest. Tawseef is the only boy in the family, and has four sisters. His grandmother started talking. “He tries to spend most of his time idling at a shop his uncle owns not very far from here,” she said. “He is the only son.”

Kashmir Life Photo by Durdana Bhat

Tawseef, a Class 9 student at a local school, was hit by pellets his left eye one week after Burhan’s killing. Immediately, he was transferred to JVC Bemina, where he received his first treatment. “They didn’t give us any reports or X-rays,” said his mother. “We don’t get any help from his father. Our maternal uncle has been helping him ever since he got injured,” one of his sisters complained.

As we left, the mother rushed to the hall and got an old photograph of her son before he lost the vision in his eye: A red-framed flowery picture of Tawseef without pitch black goggles. He has stopped studying now.

Suhail, 21, was near the local higher secondary school, where a protest was held, a group of people fell prey to the pellets. Suhail was one of them. With a family of seven, Suhail has two sisters and two brothers. He is the youngest son. “I hide my eye injury and prefer not to tell people about it. What’s the point? The last time someone talked, he was taken to the local police station. Many were, in fact,” he says.

A closer look at his left eye shows a laterally distorted pupil and a small black mark in the white of his eye where the pellet had hit him. “What are you writing this down for? How can you expect us to trust you after those arrests?” asks Suhail’s mother suspiciously.

However, after assurance from her son she sat down and helped with the answers. The three surgeries that were done on Suhail’s left eye were done in Kashmir.

The doctors had suggested a counsel with a private doctor in Hyderabad, where they were informed that nothing could be done to make it better. Suhail is a first year arts student, who studies literature, philosophy and psychology. “I cannot finish the portions given to us before exams, but I try my best. My eye hurts if I concentrate for long, though. I appeared for my exams too,” said Suhail.

Jan Mohammed, 18, who was injured on October 21, 2016, was in the second year of his nursing course.

He had written an entrance exam for Kolkata College of Nursing and earned a seat which was cancelled when he couldn’t show up due to his injury. His friends who got selected are currently studying there. His father is a casual labourer. Taking his cap off, he shows his left eye which had focal haemorrhage. “I can see a blur with this eye. The forces shot at me without provocation. I was just sitting there with my friends,” he says. Jan has not studied ever since.

Fayaz Ahmed, 36, a father of five, was cutting grass at the patch of land he was working at. While on his way home for lunch, he was shot with a pellet gun. He was sprayed with pellets in head, and torso, and his right eye. Subsequently, he spent Rs 10,000 for the treatment. When he tried to remove his goggles, he immediately looked down since he couldn’t stare into the light. He hasn’t worked ever since.

Arif Tantray, 12, lives with an elder brother Tahseen, 18, and his father, and an ailing mother. She has been diagnosed with multiple ailments, and suffers from headaches more often now. “Arif was hit during some indiscriminate firing nearby. He is out right now, trying to play with the other kids,” his father said.

They didn’t have the medical reports with them either. As this reporter started to leave Arif’s father got up and said, “Do not leave please. Please write about my son’s condition so that people know.”

Arif’s father manages Rs 3000 for his son’s treatment every month by working in the fields and doing odd jobs for people. “I have to take care of my wife’s medicine,” he said.

As this reporter left he saw Arif walking towards his home. A young boy standing not more than four feet high, with goggles bigger than half of his face; he allowed us to take pictures of him outside his house. He sat in silence on a makeshift bench and broke down when he slowly took his goggles off.

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