Shell Shocked

It has been a decade since the ordinance depots a Khundru went up in flames sending explosive projectiles to every place, in orchards, fields, and home. Umar Khurshid visited the impacted belt to discover that explosives have not disappeared from the scene

On April 13, last year, a ninth class student then, Ashiq Hussain Bhat of Pahloo village in Shangus belt of was critically injured when he touched an object lying abandoned in his courtyard. It turned out to be a shell and it exploded abruptly, damagingAshiq’s left hand, eye, and thigh.

That was Sunday morning. Ashiq was told by his mother to see the cowshed that had a lot of rainwater collected on its roof. As he started draining rainwater, his lever touched an unexploded shell and an explosion took place. “I fell unconscious and I don’t remember what happened later,” recalls Ashiq.

It was his sister Masrat Jaan 35, who rushed out of her home and shouted for help. Ashiq was immediately rushed to District Hospital Islamabad where doctors referred him toSKIMS, Srinagar. It took him 18 days to regained his senses.

“When I opened my eyes I found my family around me in the hospital,” recalls Ashiq. “I had no idea, 18 days had gone by since that deafening bang.”

He spent 38 days in SKIMS and the family had booked an expenditure of Rs four lakh on his treatment. He lost two fingers of his right hand that rendered him unable to do any work, “Neither can I see properly with my right eye nor can I carry anything heavy,” Ashiq said.

Ashiq has 75 stitches in his abdomen and is unable to walk straight. The compensation of Rs 2 lakh was not enough to even get medicines for him for two years. His fear is that if his parents die who will take care of him. His two brothers Gulzar Ahmed 35, and Khurshid Ahmed 30, live separately, “I don’t want to be a burden on anyone,”Ashiq laments. “The handicaps with which I survived have given me a social stigma to the extent that it is impossible for me to find a mate.”

His uselessness was certified the day, he was sent back home by none other than his brother, to whose place, he had gone to work along with seven other labourers. “I was told that I am worth the work and the wages,” Ashiq said. “That movement shattered me into pieces.” Ashiq said he is keen, even so, desperate to work but nobody hires me as a labourer.”

Ashiq has nothing to do. He once earned Rs 12,000 a month and now he does not earn even one-tenth of it.

Ashiq has neither been a militant nor a civilian caught in a battlefield. He is one of the victims Khundru where an ordinance depot went up in flames in 2007. Tens of thousands of blasts sent rockets and other projectiles landing in rice fields, orchards, homes and on the roofs of houses.

Police and the Army claimed they sanitized the entire area by clearing all the diffused and live explosive devices. But the shells make their surprising appearances more often. Some of the shells who had landed deep into the soil are getting up with soil erosion. They are scattered in paddy fields and orchards, locals say.

“We live in a constant fear as you never know when the shell will explode,” resident Abdul Hamid said. “Our children can’t play and roam around freely in the fields.”

The economy of this belt took a serious hit since the ammunition depot went ablaze as people are reluctant to visit fields and orchards.

“We were unable to cultivate mustard, grass, and wheat and the chances of cultivating rice now also look bleak as shells are still lying scattered,” Ashiq’s cousin, Mohammad Yasin said.“Most of the times our feet get injured when we are spraying fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides in orchards.”

Though the residents say they apprised the officials and the local lawmaker but it has not helped them. They are alleging crisis in assessing losses and distributing compensation.

“Even the villages which were not affected were provided relief but those who suffered were denied the same,” a Pahloo resident claimed. “Politicians did this to appease their vote bank.”

When the worst mishap of its kind happened in August 2007, Abdul Hamid Bhat, then 35, a meat seller of Nowgam (Shangus) and his cousin Bashir Ahmed Bhat, 55, were assisting his neighbours to fetch bricks from the main road. As loud bangs started, they were advised to flee as far as 5 kms.

While people were running away, the two cousin brothers decided to get slightly closer to the depot to help people who were stranded. They had reached near the local shrine, almost half a kms away when Hamid was hit by the bombshell. He died on spot.

“I lost my senses and could not understand anything,” recalls Bashr.“I could not see anything due to the teary smokes and blasts, so I preferred to run away instead of taking up my cousin Hamid.” The body was recovered two days later.

Hamid left behind a young wife, son Visal, and daughter Saba.Kulsuma Bano 47, his widow, and the two kids put a valiant battle for dignified survival. The three live in two rooms of a mud house they share with her in-laws in Nowgam.Kulsuma worked hard to educate both her children, “I used to go to other houses to wash their utensils,” recalls Kulsuma. “Even my children worked in others houses to run our home.”

Saba said they got a compensation of two lakh rupees but one cannot survive lifelong on this money. Now a post-graduate, Saba works as a pharma medical representative that fetches her monthly Rs 3000. “I wished I could study further but due to the family responsibilities I couldn’t,” Saba admits with a grim face.

Zahid Bashir 19, an art student of Degree College Islamabad, lives in Sombran. With the help of his aunt Misra, he was clearing the debris of his house when he was injured.

“I tried to dig a lever to lift up debris but it hit a shell hidden underneath and exploded,” Zahid said. He lost his right arm and right eye. “Everything went blurred in front of my eyes and later I don’t know what happened.”

Now, Zahid is dependent on his family. Barring bathing, Zahid needs the assistance of his mother in everything.

Zahid used to be a good cricketer and fun loving boy. Now he plays games on cell phone

Sakeena, his mother, said she never leaves him alone. “Once I literally forced him to go out and play with his friends, but he politely refused saying men with amputated arms do not play and shattered all of us,” Sakeen said.

Zahid had four surgeries in his eye but he is still unable to see. If he takes out his glasses then he feels irritation in his eyes.

Mohammad Rafiq Mir 48, from Khundru lost his right arm while working in his orchard.In late 2007, he and his nephew Mudasir Ahmed 25, from Bumdoora, his aunt Hafeeza, 50, his mother Taja, 65, were working in the orchard.Rafiq found a pencil-shaped battery shell but as soon as he touched that it exploded which led all of them to sustain injuries.

Mudasir had his arm injured. His aunt has had to manage plastic surgery in her throat, and his mother survived badly injured. The government gave her a compensation of Rs 7000 but she is unable to move her arm, still.

Now, Rafiq manages his family with the help of his brother and father who are financially sound. A sole earner Rafiq survives with his four children and his wife but insists he is unable to meet the expectations of his family.

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