While lethality and legality of pellet gun is still a matter of debate, silent and unending ordeal of victims and their families remain unheard. Saima Bhat meets some of the victim families who managed the crisis and its expenses on their own
On 13th August, at the peak of 2010 summer agitation, Sajad Ahmad Darzi, a rag picker from Pattan, became one of the first victims of newly introduced pellet gun. The next two years were like hell for Sajad and his family as the cost of treatment was enormous and hope of survival too bleak. His mother, Saleema, who is a native of Kolkata, begged on streets to manage the expenses. But despite all her struggle Sajad could not survive his injuries and died silently and un-heard on May 19, 2012.
Between June and August 2010, around 130 civilians, mostly teenagers, were killed during clashes between protesters and government forces in Kashmir. It was during those protests that government first equipped state police and CRPF with pepper gas and pellet guns. The idea was to introduce non-lethal weapons to control ‘unruly mobs’ in Kashmir. But these non-lethal weapons or pellet guns ended up taking many lives.
The data collected from Kashmir’s two main hospitals reveal that in last four years 165 people suffered serious injuries due to pellet guns. At least 12 people lost their eyesight partially or completely because of pellet injuries.
Interestingly, a PIL seeking ban on the use of pellet guns and pepper gas on civilians was dismissed by the High Court, Srinagar, on grounds that these weapons are non-lethal.
In 2013, pellet ruled public discourse as both government and separatists argued spiritedly about its uses and abuses! The debate reached its threshold when a number of cases where victims have struggled to nurse their pellet injuries unsuccessfully ruled headline in local press.
Sensing opportunity separatists cried their hearts out to highlight official apathy towards young victims of pellet.
But amidst the euphoria from both sides teenagers like Sajad ended up struggling all alone. “Not even a single separatist visited us during last two years when Sajad was battling for life,” says Saleema.
Recalling the events of that day when Sajad had left home to buy bread for his father, Saleema says she regrets not stopping him from going out as there were protests all around. Sajad was caught between protestors and policemen. But before he could find a safe place to hide he was hit by a pellet fired from across the street. Taking it as a minor injury he ran home with the bread. “He told me that he was hiding in the baker’s shop till he found it safe to leave,” recalls Sajad’s father Ali Mohammad Darzi.
Next morning when situation eased a bit, Darzi took his son to a nearby health center to get his wounds dressed. “He had several wounds on right side of his body but looked alright,” says Darzi.
Sajad’s mother thought that her son was hit by grenade shells or canister as pellet was just introduced and was uncommon. “He had several small holes across his right side,” recalls Saleema.
Sajad carried on with his life and went out every morning with his mother to collect trash in a cycle pulled cart. Around three months later, everything looked normal till Sajad complained of swelling in his right hand. “I took him to SKIMS, Bemina where doctors took a blood sample from the swelled part and asked us to come again after a week’s time for the report,” says Darzi.
After a week when Darzi and Sajad went to hospital to collect reports doctors told him that they found cancer in his right hand bone. “They suggested that he should be admitted to the hospital right away,” says Darzi.
With Sajad one of the major contributors in a family of 7 members, Darzi struggled to raise the money needed for his treatment. “His mother had to beg on streets in order to raise 7500 rupees for MRI,” says Darzi. The MRI confirmed initial diagnosis of cancer in his right hand. It was the start of a painful journey for Sajad and his family. “We visited almost every single hospital in Srinagar. It was not easy for us to manage expanses. Nobody came to our help,” says Saleema. Finally doctors at SKIMS started therapy on Sajad. “But they (doctors) were hardly concerned about his well being. It was because of doctors that he was suffering. Only if they would have diagnosed it earlier my child would have been alive,” says Saleema.
As Sajad’s condition started to worsen his family decided to take him to Kolkata for treatment. “Our local Baitul Maal and some locals from Srinagar collected around Rs 7.5 lakhs for us,” says Saleema.
In Kolkata doctors told Saleema that if Sajad’s hand was amputated at initial diagnosis, he would have been better as his bone cancer was spreading then.
They decided to come back and soon his treatment started again at Bone and Joint hospital where doctors amputated his right hand.
With the amputated hand, Sajad returned home but the pain never stopped, says his mother. “He was depressed that he is without his hand,” says Saleema while wiping her tears.
Saleema counseled her son not to lose hope but Sajad was continuously complaining of pain in his arm.
The family once again approached doctors again who advised them to amputate his forearm and then his upper arm, as the infection was continuously spreading.
The doctors at SKIMS, Soura informed the family that negligence at earlier stage has proved fatal for Sajad, recalls Saleema.
His elder sister Nusrat recalls when his hand was amputated, he used to sit idle at home. “One day our cousin came and he showed us on internet that a boy from Palhallan had made a mini JCB.”
Sajad got excited and told his sister that he too wants to be an engineer.
After three surgeries Sajad developed swelling in the upper rib cage and it was continuously increasing in size. The infection soon spread to his lungs and he died of cardiac pulmonary arrest.
With limited source of income sixty-year-old Darzi struggles to manage his family’s expenses alone.
“After my son’s death many people visited us but nobody helped. All they did was to take photo-copies of his medical reports and vanish,” says Saleema. “At least separatists should have helped us. We live in a miserable condition.”
Darzi says that he approached district adminstation for compensation but nothing happened. “Ideally I would not take compensation but I am helpless. I have a family to feed.”
Saleema alleges that even local police demanded money from the family to lodge an FIR. When contacted, SHO Pattan told Kashmir Life over phone that Sajad’s family never approached police. “After two years it was not possible to inquire if Sajad was really injured or not. We have also filed the same report to State Human Rights Commission (SHRC).”
A month later in September 2010, when Sajad was nursing his injuries, some 30 kms away in old town Baramulla, Amir Kabir, 21, was hit by a pellet on his eyes when he had gone to get medicines for his mother.
Despite financial constrains Amir’s family managed to take him outside state for treatment, so that they could save his eyes.
“We sold off our land and other costly things so that Amir could get his eyesight back but our bad luck, he lost the vision of his both eyes,” says Amir’s mother.
Initially members from each separatist party visited Amir at his home but from last two years now, nobody ever bothered about him, alleges his mother. “Some of the party heads even gave us a meager amount for Amir’s treatment but what now, when our son has become dependent?” questions his mother. She says that everyday she prays to God for Amir’s job.
Amir himself seems to have accepted his reality but he desires to earn for his young wife who is doing graduation.
Amir along with his parents met Omar Abdullah so that he can arrange a job for him. “He assured us help but it has been more than a year now, we are yet to receive it.”
But Amir was more hurt when chairman of JKLF, Mohammad Yasin Malik asked him to visit his Srinagar residence. “I was excited that Malik is going to help me and he might feel my pain but when I reached Srinagar, 55 kms from my home, he kept his phone switched off.” Amir adds, “Then I returned and called him again in the evening, his phone was on that time but I found his tone different. He told me that I lied to him about my financial condition. Since then I never approached any separatist leader.”
When Kashmir Life approached Malik, he refuted the claims and said, “I asked Amir to get all his medical reports so that I could ask people to help him but he never turned up.”
Malik added that he is the only leader in Kashmir who openly collects donations and then distributes them publically. “I have nothing to hide,” he said.
Disappointed with the approach of separatist leaders, Amir sees it as the failure of Kashmiri society as a whole to rehabilitate people like him. He says that a civil society in Baramulla helps him on monthly basis but “I cannot run my family on that.”
While talking to Kashmir Life, Shahid ul Islam, spokesperson of Hurriyat (M) says that their party provides legal assistance and financial help for the treatment (only initially) for such victims. “We have a proper management, Darul Khairaat for the help of needy people where locals contribute but that goes to people through a proper management system annually.”
Shahid hopes that in future his party may take an initiative for the rehabilitation of such victims.
But as per an informed source in the same party, “There have been cases when we provided help to them but money never reached them.”
The other camp, Hurriyat (G) also claims to have helped many victims, but these victims deny such claim of help and feel neglected by their leaders.
As per the study conducted between June 2010 and September 2010, which was published in ‘Turkish Journal of Trauma and Emergency Surgery’, “A total of 634 patients were received at the Emergency Reception (of SKIMS). 325 (had) sustained firearm injuries (88 bullet injuries, 39 tear-gas shell injuries and 198 pellet gun injuries); 98 were injured by stone pelting and another 211 by alleged beating by security forces.”
The study has focused on the pellet injuries only. It has found that 72.7 percent of patients were aged between 16 to 25 years and the percentage of body extremities (limbs) hit was 47.9 percent. The study compares the pellet injuries similar to bullet injuries. “Pellets should be evaluated and managed in the same way as those sustaining bullet injuries,” the study concludes.
But the actual number of victims is believed to be much higher than this as many pellet injury victims never report to the hospitals; they rather prefer to treat themselves with local chemists in order to avoid arrests.
In 2010, a teenager, Muzaffar Ahmad was injured in a protest when he was on his way to attend tuitions in his hometown Pampore. A bullet hit him on his spinal cord and paralyzed him forever. After remaining on bed for a complete one year he succumbed to his injuries in 2011.
Days before his death when Kashmir Life visited Muzaffar at his home, his father said, “We are desperately looking for financial support to get our son treated outside the state as doctors here are unable to treat him.”
On his death, some of the separatist leaders visited the family but they were beaten by Muzaffar’s neighbors and were not even allowed to meet his parents, recalls a resident in Pampore.
“They never bothered to help the family when Muzaffar was alive then what was the fun of coming when he left us? These people come to such places so that they get their spaces in newspapers,” alleges the resident.
While the debate about legality of using pellet guns on civilian population is still on, families of victims like Sajad, Amir and Muzaffar feel left out by those who claim to understand their pain. “It is not the injury that hurts but it’s the struggle afterwards for survival that kills you,” says Amir. “It would have been soothing if people remember you after the euphoria dies down,” he says while finding his way out of the darkroom with his hands.