The youth blinded by Indian troops quelling separatist protests in Kashmir are facing isolation. Once on the frontlines, some are now painfully aware their only lifeline might be the odd job allotted by the same government they sought to overthrow.
PULWAMA, India-administered Kashmir — On Sunday, April 1, at least twenty young men and boys were rushed to the hospital in Srinagar, the capital city of the Indian-administered Kashmir, with blood and fluids oozing out of their eyes.
Siren after siren, more boys were brought in. “We can’t see. We can’t see” they said in a panic to those carrying them in.
Later the wounded, lying on the beds with bandaged eyes and pockmarked faces, asked only one question. “Will we ever be able to see again?”
The same question echoes from the beds of the ophthalmology ward in Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital as each week more and more people are blinded by Indian forces using pellet guns on pro-independence protesters. In the first nine days of May, according to ophthalmologists, 51 people were taken to the hospital with pellet gun injuries to their eyes.
The resistance by Kashmiris against India’s rule and the administration’s brute response has claimed thousands of lives. And over the last couple of years, a new breed of war casualties has emerged in Kashmir’s fight for independence: “pellet victims.”
Indian forces have been using 12-bore shotguns to quell pro-independence protests in Kashmir. The weapon which they classify as “non-lethal” can, with one shot, unload over 400 lead pellets – much like ball bearings – into crowds.
This state-sanctioned use has resulted in the deaths of at least 17 people in 2016 and 2017, and, according to conservative estimates by local doctors, in the partial or complete blinding of more than 2,000 young Kashmiris over the last eight years.
As “enforced blindness” spreads like an endemic in Indian-administered Kashmir, we set out to discover how young people return to their lives after being maimed or blinded.
In one corner of Srinagar’s Pratap Park, a group of young men sit in a circle under the spring sun, wearing opaque sunglasses.
Their shades distinguish them from over a hundred others sitting in the park. They are all part of the Pellet Victims Welfare Trust (PVWT), an informal group run by those blinded to help others in the same predicament.
Mohammad Ashraf, the Trust's chairman tells TRT World that a few of them were being treated for pellet injuries in the SMHS ophthalmology ward when they came up with the idea to set up an organisation. Struggling with their loss of vision, each of them felt the need to band together to fight for their rights, and because they realised there were going to be a lot more pellet victims who would need help navigating their new world of darkness.
“We understood that no one was going to help us and that we needed to help ourselves,” Ashraf tells TRT World. “So we decided to form this organisation – we want to help the people blinded by pellets in every way.”
As Ashraf tries to organise the Trust, two teenage girls from his village in Pulwama district, 26 kilometres southwest of Srinagar, struggle to make sense of their future as pellet victims.
Ifra, 17, and Shabrooza, 16, were partially blinded by Indian forces who were clashing with stone-wielding youth near the girls' houses on October 30, 2016.
Both girls underwent several expensive surgeries, only to be left with diminished vision and unresolved anger.
Shabrooza's father spent eight years of savings ($3,700) to save her from complete blindness. He had set aside the money for the weddings of his two daughters.
Ifra’s family says she struggles with “anger issues” ever since she was shot.
When I speak to them, Shabrooza and Ifra say that they hate everyone and everything. They find it difficult to hear their families laughing and talking; to the girls, it seems as if everyone else has moved on but them.
“I keep asking myself why did it happen to me. I look at my other friends and I see their lives go on unhindered,” Ifra says. “I don’t want to do anything anymore, I just want to be sad – to think and be sad.” She was in grade nine before the incident but isn’t sure if she wants to go back to school.
As I get a glimpse of the girls’ desperate need for someone to help them through the trauma, Ashraf’s attempts to set up an outreach group make perfect sense.
But when I ask Ashraf why no one had reached out to the two teens, it becomes clear he and his companions are almost as vulnerable – young men struggling not to lose themselves in the perpetual fog hanging over them. A few minutes into the conversation in the park, it becomes apparent they are also waiting for someone to help them.
Ashraf is 26 years old with a restless spark, a slightly dishevelled beard and furrowed brow.
His right eye, he says, is completely damaged and his left has impaired vision. He was blinded on the same day as Ifra and Shabrooza.
He has the demeanour of the street protester, the unifying mobiliser. Ashraf is the guy who stands up when everyone is still unsure if they should. This energy clings to him even after six eye surgeries over the past year and a half. His treatment cost his family $6,700 ( 450,000 Indian rupees), the kind of money, he says, they don’t have.
Four months before the pellets blinded him, Ashraf was hit by a bullet near his chest during another protest. Exactly 89 stitches crawl across his ribs and onto his back.
State of suspended hope
“It has been a very difficult time,” Ashraf says. “We meet dozens of types of people who give us dozens of kinds of suggestions. And given our current state, we can’t tell the good suggestion from the bad – we hang on to everything.”
Ashraf was working in a telecom company and was in the second year of a three-year college degree when he was injured. Now he stays home all day long or meets others who are in the same predicament.
Though he talks about the issues and problems faced by pellet victims, it becomes clear after a while that these young men hope for only one thing: that the Indian-backed government in Kashmir would give them permanent jobs as part of a rehabilitation scheme.
Besides Ashraf sits 21-year-old Jehangir Ahmad who hasn’t spoken a word as yet but is quietly listening.
Jehangir is strikingly handsome and comes across as someone who doesn’t say much until he needs to. He was hit injured on July 3, 2017 when Indian forces fired on protesters in his hometown, Shopian. He is completely blind in his left eye, which appears fogged-up and glassy.
“It’s not just the eyesight, it’s everything. I don’t know what do with myself now. I’m just passing days, I used to believe that I could do anything I wanted. Now I can’t believe in myself anymore. I feel finished,” he says.
Reluctantly, Jehangir also waits for an elusive government job. The irony is not lost on him that he hopes to land what will probably be a menial job from the government he fought to overthrow, the same one that blinded him.
All these young men sitting in the park exude a charisma, of those who fight with stones on the front lines against an armed state force. It is this charisma that makes their defeat even more palpable, something they acknowledge.
“Yes, we feel dead inside. We don’t know what to do with ourselves. All of us are like this, and we know we need to pull ourselves together, but we are not able to,” Jehangir says. “We need help and support but there is none. Each day we sink deeper into our darkness,” he says.
Ashraf says he used to be the leader, fronting the resistance on the streets in his village. But now he doesn’t know who he is.
The rest of the young men join in, and they complain not about the government nor the Indian forces that blinded them but about a society which refuses to see them and acknowledge their present plight.
“It’s like we don’t exist anymore. We were on the front lines fighting for independence against Indian rule, and now we are all in queue for class IV [the lowest level] government jobs,” Ashraf says. “Most of us don’t even have the $30 (2,000 Indian rupees) we need every month for medicine. We wouldn’t have been so defeated if our people had helped us even a little with our blindness.”
The young men say they wish they had been killed instead, at least then they “would have been hailed as martyrs.”
And perhaps leaving behind invisible victims instead of a trail of bodies of “martyrs” is easier for Indian forces, who, even in the face of international criticism, have continued to use pellet guns on protesters.
According to records from SMHS hospital, the hospital to which most pellets victims are referred, 1,253 people have been blinded in Kashmir since the summer of 2016. At least 61 of those were injured in both eyes.
“At this rate, we will soon have thousands of blind people and that is what the state seems to want,” says Khurram Parvez, a prominent human rights activist and the chairperson of Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD).
“We have an endemic of enforced blindness here like we have one of enforced disappearances. It is the state’s new responses to stifle the lives and voices of the Kashmiri people,” he says.
The government in the disputed region of Kashmir says that they are working to provide some form of rehabilitation to those wounded and blinded in the protests.
“Our [Jammu and Kashmir People's Democratic Party] stated position is to stop the use of pellet guns but we cannot enforce it because the police and paramilitary tell us that if they don’t use pellet guns they would have to use bullets, which would lead to a lot of casualties,” Naeem Akhtar, the Jammu and Kashmir public works minister and official spokesman of the government, tells TRT World.
In the absence of real financial, social and psychological help, the young men continue their efforts to collect funds for the Trust.
Every Friday, the young men gather outside big mosques and urge people to donate.
On the first Friday of May, Ashraf says, they went to collect money at two mosques in northern Baramulla district. From one, he says, “we gathered nothing and from the other, we collected $7 (450 Indian rupees).”
Some, like Ajaz Ahmad Malik, who in his black Wayfarer sunglasses looks like an executive on a break in the park, are uncomfortable standing outside the mosques and urging people to put money into their collection box.
“It feels like begging,” he says.
At least 24 pellets pierced Ajaz in the eyes and face in 2017. After six surgeries, the 30-year-old from Pattan in northern Kashmir says that he is blind in the right eye and has partial vision in the left.
He used to be a network troubleshooter in a telecom company but now Ajaz cannot even read what’s written on the screen.
“I tried going back [to the company] after my surgeries but I couldn’t function. I could not focus on the screen. So I lost my job,” Ajaz says. “But of all things, the most painful for me is to go home and see my defeated daughter, wife and parents,” he shares.
When Ajaz’s three-year-old daughter saw her father’s injuries, she had to be hospitalised.
“She was on a ventilator for eight days and I couldn’t do anything for her ... I couldn’t see. Now I can’t even help teach her alphabets because I can’t see anything on the page,” he says.
“It’s the feeling of becoming a burden on everyone around me – it defeats me.”
Living in limbo, Ajaz too awaits a government job, and with the number of young people with damaged eyes increasing every month, the queue keeps becoming longer.
With the exception of Ashraf, none of the nine young people I met in the park or the two girls had visited a mental health counsellor. They say they have neither the patience nor the money for it.
Many of them don't even visit even their ophthalmologist anymore.
“What for? To hell with it all. There is no way out now!” says Altaf Ahmad, another young man from Shopian in south Kashmir. His voice has an edge of anger to it and the spark that I glimpse in all of them edges closer to igniting a more explosive reaction.
He takes off his sunglasses and asks me to identify which of his eyes is damaged. Both seem fine to me, but I think the left one doesn’t move as much and point to it.
The right one, he says. “How many pellets are inside my right eye, right now?”
“Four,” I take a guess. “How many pellets could be lodged in an eye after all?”
“Sixteen inside the eye,” Altaf replies. “Twenty in total, still inside.”
In his early 30s, Altaf is a father of two little daughters and used to earn his living by working in the orchards.
As we sit in the park, Altaf takes my hand and traces my fingers over the small bumps on his temple and above his right eye.
“You could think I am fine because my eye looks okay,” he says. “But every time I am in the sun, the pellets heat up. I can’t focus on a branch, I can’t look up. What will I do in the orchard now? I get splitting headaches.”
Altaf finds consolation that he fought for his belief in Kashmir’s freedom from India.
But he worries the day might come when his circumstances will make it impossible for him to refuse a job with the Indian administration that he fought until it blinded him. When that happens, Altaf fears his beliefs which drove him to fight for something bigger than himself, for independence, might disintegrate.
He says he doesn’t want that job, that the job defeats the purpose of his sacrifice.
It is afternoon and there is news of another attack by the Indian forces on a militant hideout in the south.
Several militants are trapped, a young man from the same area tell the rest. He says people have come out to protest and there are reports of civilians being wounded. Several have been hit by pellets, he says.
They want to return home now before it gets too difficult to travel through the restive south. Some of them can’t even afford to cover the bus fare.
Ashraf hands over some money from last week’s collection at the mosque.
The street outside the park is choked with traffic and the city’s busy citizens rush by with no time to look around.
Insignificant and invisible, Ashraf, Jehangir, Altaf, Ajaz and the five other young men with various degrees of blindness head off in different directions, with great effort negotiating the darkness of the bright spring day.