Beyond Violence, Exposing a Mental Health Crisis in Kashmir Valley

“Whenever there are hartals and curfews, it brings back those memories,” said Danish, who was blinded by pellets.

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It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and Zuhaib Maqbool was on an assignment to cover clashes in the downtown area of Srinagar. Zuhaib, 30, had been covering the conflict as a photojournalist for the last 5 years. He was around 500 metres from his home when he heard some gunshots. He immediately took cover near the corner of a house.

However, just as he thought he was safe, a pellet pierced through his sunglasses hitting his left eye and injuring it badly. Zuhaib used to use his left eye to click photographs but now he is trying to make use of his right eye to do the same. Doctors say he has lost 99 percent vision and chances of recovery are bleak.

Zuhaib Maqbool.
Zuhaib Maqbool.
(Photo: Qazi Wasif/The Quint)

However, it’s not just the physical injuries Zuhaib has to contend with. The tragic incident has also left deep mental scars. He has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“I had to sit in one room for 6 months. The darkness haunts me. I feel completely numb now. I don’t feel like laughing anymore. These walls are my friends now,” says Zuhaib.

At the time of injury, Zuhaib weighed 104 kg, now it is 67 kg.

He is trying to get back in shape. A regular at the gym, he is finding it difficult to cope. He has had two surgeries and is waiting for the doctors to give him the nod for a third surgery.

“For the past one year I have been sitting at home with nothing to do. As a photographer I used to play with colours, now colours are playing with me.”

Zuhaib still has more than 200 pellets in his body.

Another victim, Danish Rajab, who lives just 500 m away from Zuhaib’s residence, was also hit by pellets when security forces allegedly opened fire on a group of boys in the downtown area of Srinagar. Danish has lost both his eyes to pellets.

At evening, during the ‘’Deal hours’’ of curfew when there were no protests going on, I along with my friends had gone to the market to buy some household items when suddenly a CRPF patrol vehicle came and started shooting indiscriminately at us. I got shot in my eyes.

Mushtaq Margoob, a renowned psychiatrist, regularly visits his home for counselling.

“Whenever there are hartals and curfews, it brings back those memories and it haunts me.”

Danish was into business marketing and was studying at the same time before the incident. Since then he hasn’t been able to get back to work.

“I am not able to walk on my own now. I never imagined that I would require help of others to move around.”

Danish still has 82 pellets left in his body.

A child at a demonstration organised by the APDP.
A child at a demonstration organised by the APDP.
(Photo: Qazi Wasif/The Quint)
The suffering of Zuhaib and Danish is not isolated. Post the summer unrest of 2016, the Valley has seen a large number of young people seeking help related to mental health problems. Experts say and data shows that after the unrest of 2016, the number of such cases have gone considerably higher.

The study, done by the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS), Kashmir, in collaboration with Action Aid Association with support of Directorate General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO), shows 11.3 percent of adult population suffers from mental illness in the Valley, with conflict as the prime reason. This prevalence is significantly higher than the Indian national average of 7.3 percent.

Witnessing violent protests on the streets, living locked up at home through long curfews and the suspension of telecommunication services are among the many reasons that have contributed to this staggering rise, experts say. 

“There has been a dramatic increase in the number of patients visiting the OPD after the unrest. Around 200 patients are being treated during the OPD hours every day,” said Yasir Rather, assistant professor, Government Medical College.

Even before the 2016 unrest, a large number of people have suffered from conflict-related mental health problems in Kashmir. A Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) study says that one out of every two adults suffers from some sort of mental illness in Kashmir.

Zuhaib is trying to get back to his feet and he has started to click photographs again. He says,

Even if my legs or arms are injured I will still continue to click photographs.

Fight For Missing Sons

Often called the Iron Lady of Kashmir, Parveena Ahanger lost her son in the 1990s when he was picked up by the security forces. The trauma and mental stress she suffered after her son’s disappearance motivated her to form and chair the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP).

Talking to The Quint, she reveals that the psychological stress she endured did not allow her to do any work at home.

I was on medication for ten years… All the world felt deserted and I was cut off from all relatives…everything felt useless.

Far-flung relatives accused her of ruining the family as Parveena battled sleepless nights. She says that many people, particularly women, suffer a fate similar to hers after they lose their loved ones.

APDP, Parveena’s organisation, regularly conducts sit-in protests to draw attention to the plight of people like her.

“We come here to sit and protest to tell them we are fighting for our children. We don't need any compensation or ex-gratia relief. We just want information. If they are alive tell us, if not show us their graves," said Parveena.

Even as the Valley is ridden with violence, the people in the region are fighting an entirely different battle altogether – against the stress caged in their minds. Every day is a struggle for these citizens, who are attempting to live alongside this underlying mental health crisis that has gone unnoticed in the Valley.

Video Producer: Anthony Rozario
Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam

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