KASHMIR: VIEW FROM THE EMERGENCY ROOM
It is another day of curfew in Kashmir. I am travelling in an ambulance to the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital in Srinagar, my workplace and the city’s main hospital. The windscreen is shattered like that of most vehicles that dare to ply the roads, which are blockaded by either protesters or policed by irate securitymen. It is a blessing though, the shattered windscreen, because it offsets the suffocation in the van. The van carries eight persons but these days it is packed with medics, nurses and paramedics, this being a safer mode of travel.
A CONCERTINA wire blocks the road ahead and a policeman peers into the van. “Hospital staff”, the driver says with an ingratiating smile and the policeman lifts the wire and waves us on. A speeding car overtakes us with its horn blaring and a couple of youth hanging out of the windows shouting and gesticulating wildly. There has been a firing on a demonstration and they are carrying a young man hit by a bullet to the hospital. “There, it has started,” a nurse grumbles.
By the time we reach the hospital, the patient in the car that overtook us is in the operation theatre. A crowd has gathered. There is blood on the clothes of the youth who came with the patient. One of the accompanying youngsters is sitting near the entrance of the theatre weeping and pleading to be let inside. He is the victim’s brother. I enter the theatre. A tube sticks out of the teenager’s mouth through which a doctor is ventilating him. Another doctor is applying stitches to secure the tube that has been put in on the side of the chest with the bullet wound. The bag attached to the tube bulges with blood. It empties and fills rapidly. “He will need a thoracotomy,” the doctor shakes his head.
There is a brief lull and then someone comes with news that protesters have been fired at in a village near Sopore, nearly 60 kilometres away. The journalists arrive with their cameras and converge near the casualty entrance like birds. Stretcher trolleys are hurriedly lined up. A couple of hours pass and when it has begun to look like no more injured will arrive there is this terrifying clamour of rushing gurneys.
I rush out just in time to see a young man on a trolley being dragged and pushed by a score or so youngsters. Those in the front are brandishing sticks and are hysterical. The trolley- bearers rush in one direction and then another, yelling till someone directs them towards the operation theatre. All this happens within a few seconds but, like in a nightmare, the seconds seem stretched. Another trolley follows, accompanied by shrieking women and men shouting slogans. The boy on the first trolley is dead, from a single wound in his leg that has long ceased bleeding, the blood having drained during the journey to the hospital. The trip would normally take an hour but with the confusion, the curfew, and numerous barricades, it has taken four hours. The cell phone in his pocket rings incessantly, the Bollywood song that is his ringtone sounds obscenely out of place. The other victim, an elderly person, is also dead. From bullets in the chest and neck.
The bodies are put into a waiting ambulance, which will take them and the wailing relatives back to their village. The patients keep coming in cars and auto-rickshaws. Mercifully, the injuries are not fatal. One patient has a bullet injury in the abdomen. He is lucky; he has reached hospital in time. A teenager is brought walking with a handkerchief held to his left eye. He has been hit in the eye by a marble aimed with deadly accuracy with a catapult, one of the ‘non-fatal’ weapons in the hands of the security forces. The swollen eye is reduced to a gooey mess.
Some days I can’t help feeling that even the canniest of journalists is not able to capture and project what’s happening in Kashmir. Television channels show a clichéd account with a repetition of similar-looking slogan-shouting crowds, stone-pelting youth and women wailing their dead. The hospital scene I am daily witness to is far more descriptive and eloquent. The ghastly wounds tell their own gory tale but it goes beyond that. It is not about slogans and demonstrations either. These days so many donors come to offer blood that the hospital blood bank is overflowing though at times over 20 pints have had to be transfused into a single patient.
AT MEAL times a couple or more of mini load carriers chug into the hospital compound. The sloganeers suddenly turn into solicitous hosts ladling out rice and gravy. Some days when the supplies run low it is just turmeric-dyed fried rice. Every day I see a group of prominent businessmen, who must be losing crores of rupees because of the turmoil, spending long hours in the hospital even beyond our own stretched duty hours. They are not ruing their losses but, without so much as a complaint, helping out the sick and the injured and plying patients and their attendants to remote corners of the Valley in private ambulances. In numerous ways, they provide unconditional help and assistance.
Scenes like these make it difficult to believe that it is just a handful of misguided, frustrated or paid young men who are all there is to Kashmir. The show of camaraderie is enough, and more so than the scenes on the roads, to convince even a cynic (and that, I might as well confess, includes me) that if this is not a mass movement then there has never been one.
Living in the midst of all this violence, bearing witness to fatal wounds every day, declaring ‘brought dead’ young men whose faces have just begun to sprout a fuzzy semblance of a moustache, one cannot continue to remain unaffected. I have never picked up a stone, but sometimes I feel I too am fighting, perhaps indirectly, the ones who inflict death. It is a pitifully unequal battle, especially when you are mocked by a youngster’s body, dead long before the surgical skills you are so proud of could help him.
Ajaz Baba is a general surgeon at SMHS Hospital, Srinagar