We spoke to the people who featured in the photographs that won accolades of one of the world's most prestigious journalistic juries.
On the evening of 4 May, people in India-administered Kashmir erupted in joy after three local photographers Dar Yasin, Mukhtar Khan and Channi Anand, who worked with a US-based news-agency Associated Press (AP), won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.
The 20 shortlisted pictures that the prize’s Board reviewed, tell the story of a brutal military lockdown which muted over 10 million residents of disputed Kashmir for several months in August last year after India unilaterally revoked the nominal autonomy of the region.
Photographs and written word coming out of Kashmir were rare, not least because of the communication gag imposed by New Delhi. Yasin, Khan and Anand would store photographs depicting the fallout of the soul-crushing military siege in flash drives, and send them to Delhi via random, unknown passengers travelling by air.
One of the Pulitzer-winning photographs taken by Khan featured a six-year-old Muneefa Nazir. Khan's close-up shot of Muneefa - which depicts a swollen right eye inflicted upon her by an Indian paramilitary soldier last year - reveals the grim reality of life in Kashmir.
On 12 August 2019, as the Muslim-majority region observed Eid festival under a military curfew, Muneefa and her uncle Farooq Ahmad Wani set out on a motorcycle to distribute sacrificial lamb among their relatives. They came across a group of Indian paramilitary soldiers who were blocking the road with their armoured vehicles. To avoid any trouble from the troops, Wani took a sharp turn towards an alley, but he noticed two armed soldiers suddenly emerging from behind, aiming at them. One of them wielded a sling-shot. He stretched and shot it toward them, hitting Muneefa's face.
“I went blank when I saw blood all over her clothes,” recalls Wani, a shopkeeper.
The sling-shot marbles injured Muneefa’s right eye. She cried in pain.
“I saw Indian soldiers quickly getting into their vehicles and fleeing,” Wani said.
As people gathered around Muneefa, someone helped Wani plug her wound with a piece of cloth. He then rushed her to a nearby hospital.
The injury proved so severe that doctors couldn't fully retrieve her vision. “She could just see shadows dancing in front of her injured eye and nothing else,” said the girl’s father, Nazir Ahmad Wani, a cameraman at Asian News Network (ANN).
During periodical hospital visits, Muneefa was tailed by policemen in civilian clothing. “They (policemen) maintain a register where they have data of all conflict-related victims injured by bullets, pellets and marbles,” said her uncle Wani.
“They know who is visiting the hospital, which doctor and everything. And they keep copies of victims' prescriptions with them.”
Wani said undercover cops accompany the victims of police brutality to their respective doctors’ desks.
“They helped us navigate the regular patient rush, ensuring we did not have to wait for our appointment for too long,” said Wani. “We were not allowed to change our doctor without their permission. They did not let us take Muneefa outside Kashmir for specialised treatment.”
Wani said the plainclothes police made them feel caged. “It is like being on parole, with the exception that you can visit a hospital instead of a police station,” said Wani.
Muneefa’s partial vision worsened in the following months. Her father Nazir is looking for buyers for his house, which he shares with his brother Wani, to raise money for specialised eye treatment.
The partial blindness discouraged Muneefa from attending school, but it affected her psychologically as well. “She is afraid of people now,” said Nazir, adding that she keeps asking her uncle: “Why did they shoot us when we had done nothing wrong?”
A stranger in pain
Another real-life character that featured in a series of Pulitzer-winning photographs was a man squatting down, alone, his back touching a shuttered-up shop. The picture was taken by AP's Yasin on 19 February, when the entire city was deserted, reeling from a shutdown protest against growing attacks on Kashmiris in various Indian cities.
“I was frustrated by the overall situation and went out to relax for a while,” said 62-year-old Abdul Rashid Bhat, a retired paramedic. “I remember a cameraman clicking my picture but I didn’t pay much attention to it.”
Bhat's neighbourhood is part of Srinagar city's 'downtown’, one of the epicentres of Kashmir's freedom movement. Mirwaiz Manzil is one of its significant buildings, the ancestral home of Kashmir's prominent separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.
It was ‘downtown’ where the first shots of armed rebellion against India's rule were fired in 1989.
Bhat remembers the turbulent decade of the1990s when people were dragged out of their homes and beaten up in prolonged military curfews.
Bhat went through his share of humiliation and torture, too. In 1992, Indian paramilitary soldiers stormed into a neighbourhood mosque where Bhat was praying. They pulled him out along with the Imam, and lined them up with other locals near a wall. It was an act of vengeance, Bhat said, as militants had attacked the same group of soldiers with a hand grenade.
“They were about to shoot us when some young boys distracted them from behind,” Bhat said. “They got busy with them, and we ran off.”
As a paramedic, Bhat has dealt with thousands of injured men, women and children. Almost every other day in his career, he saw injured people crammed into tiny emergency rooms. “I have seen enough bloodshed in this lifetime,” said Bhat. “Now I want some peace”.
Three years ago, as he bid farewell to his coworkers at a government-run hospital in Srinagar, he used his excess time outside the grocery shop, where Yasin spotted him for his picture. The shop is full of visitors, usually familiar locals, and it almost always turns into an amiable bantering spot. From marital issues to property disputes and municipal matters of the area, its frequent visitors seemingly stop to talk about everything under the sun. Politics,too. “It is hard not to discuss Kashmir,” said Bhat, flashing a smile on his lined face.
On 5 May, a distant relative informed him that his picture was part of a Pulitzer-winning series. At first sight of it, he thought it was someone else.
“I saw that picture on my son’s phone," he said. "I felt like I was looking at a stranger in pain.”