Unceasing lockdowns since 5 August, 2019, followed by lockdowns since last year to contain the spread of COVID-19, have worsened the condition of pellet victims in Kashmir, delaying their regular treatment and worsening their mental health. Female victims continue to bear the brunt as they are confined to their homes, dependent on their families for everyday tasks, living a crippled life engulfed in darkness.
Mohd Ashraf, who heads the Pellet Victims Welfare Trust (PVWT), an association of pellet victims comprising 1,432 members who have all lost vision in one or both eyes from pellet shotgun injuries, says pellet victims have been suffering more due to the several lockdowns since 2019. The PVWT has about 32 female pellet gun victims.
'Dependent on Others'
“Pellet victims haven’t been able to get regular treatment since last year due to lockdowns. Many who have lost their one or both eyes have also missed their corrective eye surgeries since last year, which has also deteriorated their condition,” said Ashraf, himself a pellet victim from south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, who lost his right eye in 2016 after government forces fired pellets outside his house during a protest following the killing of Hizb commander Burhan Wani.
“The government has also not done anything for us as we struggle and suffer more by becoming a burden on our families,” said Ashraf, who has regained a faint vision in his left eye. In fact, last year, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court refused to ban the use of pellet guns for crowd control during protests in the region.
Ashraf said many pellet victims have also missed out on their vaccination as their families hesitate to take them to hospitals and vaccination centres for fear of contracting the virus.
Lives Destroyed At a Young Age
Pellet shotguns have been in use in Kashmir since 2010 and are often used by government forces to quell ‘anti-state’ protests. The cartridges fired by pellet guns contain about 450-600 lead pellets with sharp edges. When fired, the cartridges burst, spraying pellets that can cause grievous injuries, especially in the eyes.
A 2019 report titled ‘My World is Dark’, released by Kashmir-based rights organisation Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), surveyed victims of state violence and pellet shotguns between 2016 and 2018. It found that most of the pellet victims were of young age, between 13-25 years.
The APDP collected and recorded about 300 testimonies of pellet gun victims injured during the 2016 protests, in which over 80 civilians were killed and 352 civilians were partially or completely blinded. The report found that the pellet injuries had “completely transformed the victims’ lives and destroyed their futures, rendering people unemployed and impoverished, in a helpless state”.
Another report, ‘Losing Sight in Kashmir’, released by Amnesty International in 2017, noted that the use of pellet-firing shotguns violates international human rights standards on the use of force as the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials states that law enforcement officials may use force “only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty”.
Two female pellet gun victims — a middle-aged single mother from north Kashmir’s Baramulla district and a school dropout from south Kashmir’s Pulwama district — who have lost vision in both their eyes, recount their ordeal over the years.
How Shakeela's Life Changed Forever
‘Sometimes I think of ending my life’Shakeela Begum (39), Fatehgarh, Baramulla district
It was September 9, 2016. There was some unrest in a neighbouring village after Friday prayers. The police and CRPF later passed by our village. Since there was noise and some disturbance outside, I went out to look for my six-year-old son, who had gone out to play. When I reached the main street outside, the forces fired from a pellet gun straight into my face. My face was badly injured. Blood came out of my eyes. I fell. Next, I woke up in the hospital. I couldn’t see anything.
Someone on the road had taken me to the SMHS hospital, where I was admitted for treatment for about 20 days. Even after some eye surgeries, I couldn’t see anything. I was taken to an eye hospital in Amritsar, where I had another surgery. The doctors said the chances of restoring my eyesight are dim as a major artery had burst in one eye and the retina of the other had ruptured due to pellets.
I was also taken to Hyderabad for specialised treatment, where the doctors said after another surgery that I can see just a little from my right eye but nothing from my left eye, which is completely damaged due to pellets.
These five years have been very difficult and painful for me. After I was crippled and blinded in both eyes at the age of 33, everything changed in my life. My marriage ended and I had to separate from my husband. My child’s upbringing and education also suffered. I couldn’t take care of him as I did in the past. I live at my brother’s place now. When my kid goes out to play, I can’t keep track of him. Before my pellet injuries, I did all the work by myself and also had a private job to support my family. Now, I’m crippled and dependent on my brother, who takes care of my treatment expenses.
When I sit outside in the garden in the sun, my head throbs with pain. I have lost count of daily headaches. Sometimes the pain is such that I want to end my life. But then I look at my kid and think of who will take care of him after me.
The unending lockdowns since August 2019 have also added to our miseries. The COVID-19 lockdown last year affected my treatment. I couldn’t travel to Amritsar for a follow-up as I was supposed to every six months. My brother, who has supported me all these years, also suffered as he couldn’t find much work during the lockdown period.
My brother did everything he could to bear the expenses for my treatment and the corrective eye surgeries over the years. He even sold one kanal of his land for 10 lakh rupees to meet my treatment expenses and all the money required for travel and surgeries in Amritsar and Hyderabad. I can’t thank him enough. Without him, I wonder what I would have done.
'Govt. Gave Us No Jobs or Compensation'
All these years, we were not helped in any way by the government. During the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, when Mehbooba Mufti was the Chief Minister, they took our documents, saying that those who have lost both eyes to pellets will be provided jobs, and others who have lost vision in one eye will be given compensation. Then the government fell. We were neither given any jobs nor any compensation till now. Who cares for us?
In the last few years, many people visited us, including journalists, recorded many of our statements, but our condition has remained the same. People move on, the world moves on, but we are stuck in the same dark world.
My kid, who is 10 now, knows what has happened to me. After I was injured and treated in the hospital, he would ask me how I was hurt. I told him everything. Sometimes he innocently tells me everything will be alright. That breaks my heart.
Ifra Shakoor Had to Drop Out of School
I didn’t deserve this. What was my crime? Everything is dark now.Ifra Shakoor (18), Rohmu village, Pulwama district
I was 13 when I was hit by pellets outside the gate of my house in the summer of 2016. I was preparing for my Class 8 exams at home when I heard a sudden noise and commotion on the street outside. When I went out to look for my younger brother, I saw forces near our gate. I was terrified and searching for my brother.
As soon as I opened the gate and started looking for my brother, I was hit in the face by pellets after some police or CRPF trooper opened fire in my direction. The forces indiscriminately fired towards me. I was hit in the face and I fell.
I was rushed to a local hospital by some people who saw me crying in pain. I was later taken to the SMHS hospital in Srinagar, where I was treated for about a month. Both my eyes had to be operated on. But despite four surgeries till now, I can’t see anything from my left eye; I have regained some 40 per cent vision in my right eye after multiple surgeries. But it’s not enough. I see shadows in front of my eyes. I can’t move out of my home on my own. I need constant help and support even for basic things. I hate that I have to depend on others every day. It depresses me.
I was good at studies and I wanted to study further but all my dreams were shattered. I couldn’t study or go to school after I was blinded by the pellets — that hurts more.
Every time I tried to open a book and read it, I had tears in my eyes. I couldn’t focus on anything. I had headaches. I had to drop out of school. If I sit in the sunlight, it hurts my eyes and causes a headache.
After last year’s lockdown due to COVID-19, I couldn’t go for regular eye checkups to Srinagar. I have been confined to my home. I often think of my life before 2016, when I could see everything and study like other kids. Now, that life is a dream. It hurts to see myself dependent on my family for everything. I don’t want to be dependent on anyone. I want to study further.
When I see my friends go to school and study, which I can’t anymore, I feel bad about what was done to my life. I didn’t deserve this. What was my crime? I could also have gone to school and continued my studies. But everything around me is dark now.
(Majid Maqbool is an independent journalist and writer based in Kashmir.)