Losing sight to pellet guns in Kashmir
It was a pleasant afternoon of October 31, 2016. Kashmir was limping back to relative normalcy after a period of unrest that had erupted in the wake of the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani.
As time was ripe for trees to shed leaves, Rohmo, a sleepy hamlet in the Pulwama district of South Kashmir looked golden. For 14-year-old Ifra Shakoor, it was time to prepare for Class eight annual exams.
As the fate had it, that picture of golden fall has been the last pleasant scene her eyes captured. For her, since then, it has been nothing but darkness all- around. On that fateful day, Ifra lost her eyesight to the pellets fired by security forces.
Sitting in a dingy room of her single-storey house, she vividly remembers hunching over school books, cramming for her exams. “All of a sudden, I heard bursts of tear smoke shells coming from the nearby market. And I got worried when I realised that my little younger brother wasn’t at home. I closed my books and rushed out to look for him,” she told DH.
As she was about to open the front gate of her house, men in uniform ran towards her and shot her with a pellet gun from point-blank range. “Darkness descended on me that very moment and I fell unconscious. When I woke up, I was on a hospital bed,” Ifra said.
Subsequent weeks were a nightmare for the teenage girl and her family. She had to undergo four major surgeries in three months without any success in regaining eyesight. The treatment also drained the feeble resources of the family.
Tragedies are not new to Ifra’s family. She lost her father in cross-firing between militants and security forces in 2007, when she was just five.
Ifra, whose elder sister is in Class 11 and younger brother in class 7, lives with her maternal grandfather, Abdul Aziz Dar. The septuagenarian Dar has half-acre farmland which he uses to cultivate rice and vegetables to feed the family. “I am a poor farmer who has seen only tragedies in life. But the blindness of my granddaughter is killing me every moment,” he said.
“I am a witness to the struggles of Ifra. Now her elder sister bathes her, washes her clothes and takes care of other needs. What will happen once she gets married and I die?” Dar asked amid sobs. However, Ifra gives courage to her grandfather. “Allah has written something good for me and there is no need to worry.”
Ifra, whose aim in life before losing her eyesight was to become a doctor, says life has taken a complete turn since then. “If I can regain my eyesight, then I can think about other issues in life,” she said.
Unable to see and move around, Ifra has stopped attending social gatherings. “I don’t want to be a burden on anyone. That is why I avoid attending social gatherings. Sometimes, my school friends visit me and give me some solace and courage. They ask me to return to school as everyone there misses me a lot, but how can I,” she questioned.
Ifra wasn’t the only girl who was hit by pellets in Rohmo village that day. Two 18-year-olds, Shabroza Akhtar and Shabroza Baghat, were also hit on the face and received pellet injuries in one eye during the protests.
In the neighbouring Barpora village, a few kilometres from Rohmo, 20-year-old Hilal Ahmad Ganie is another pellet victim who has lost vision due to pellets. Ganie, who was appearing for the 10th standard examination on that ill-fated day, was initially reluctant to speak. “Everybody comes here, clicks pictures and records our statements for their stories and studies. But nobody is bothered about what we are going through,” he said. “Doctors say there are no chances of recovery. I have given up all hopes of seeing the world again, what you want to listen from me?”
However, as his father joined the conversation with this correspondent, Ganie’s anger subsided. “Life has become a hell for my son after the incident. He feels that he has become a liability for the family and that is why sometimes he gets angry,” the senior Ganie said.
“Several journalists and civil society organisations came here to interview my son. But nobody came forward with any help. I took my son to Amritsar (Punjab) five times for treatment in the last two years, which cost me more than Rs 2.5 lakh. Now we are left with nothing. We have no hopes of any government help in spite of the fact that government forces were responsible for my son’s blindness. The policy of this government is to kill the Kashmiris, maim them and blind them,” he rued.
According to the figures at Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh(SMHS) Hospital, where most of the pellet victims in Kashmir are treated, continued use of pellets, fired from shotguns by security forces for crowd control, has fully or partially blinded more than 1,250 people since 2016. Of these, 61 are injured in both eyes.
An article published in the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics in 2016 quotes various clinical studies on pellet injuries, and concludes that the weapon is “far from being a benign non-lethal weapon” and has “far-reaching human costs.”
The use of pellet guns in Kashmir during the 2016 unrest caused an international outrage forcing the Government of India to announce that it would introduce a less lethal alternative. But pellet guns continue to be used as a ‘weapon of choice’ against civilian protesters across Kashmir.
Hilal Ahmad Ganie
As for Ifra, life is being largely alone. Sitting in the courtyard of her humble home, she looks pensive.
When asked what thoughts strike her mind, the schoolgirl replied: “I always think why was I targeted. I was not pelting stones. But then I reconcile with the situation as I know India treats us as enemies. They (New Delhi) want the land of Kashmir as they have no love for Kashmiris and that is the reason they are blinding kids like me.”