Ward no. 7 at Srinagar’s SMHS hospital exudes a blend of tension and the tranquillity. There is the usual murmur of chatter from attendants huddled around beds. But the whirring white ceiling fans under fluorescent tubes lend the air a palpable sense of foreboding.
One’s attention soon turns to the bandaged heads and eyes of patients lying on the beds, many of whom in their teens. All of them have been hit in their eyes by pellets fired by the police and CRPF to quell the protests that broke out following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani.
This is one of the two Ophthalmology wards of the hospital. Each of its 36 beds is occupied. So are those of Ward no. 8. Besides, some patients with eye damage have been shifted to the neurological ward
because of the severe nerve damage due to the pellets in other parts of their body.
“These two wards house a significant portion of the existing pain of Kashmir,” says a senior doctor at the hospital. “The plight of patients here graphically describes what transpired on the street”.
It is only when one moves from bed to bed that the scale of this pain becomes clear. And the face of this pain is Insha Malik, 14, who has lost both her eyes but wrapped up in bandages still believes she can see.
“Doctor Sahib, when will you open my bandage so that I can see again,” she tells the doctor, who doesn’t know what to reply.
Insha was on the first floor of her house at Seedow, Pulwama when a “cartridge-full of pellet fire” hit her house, some of it finding its way into her room. In no time, her face was riddled with the tiny steel pieces. Pellets also pierced her head and more damagingly the eyes.
The picture of her bubbly pockmarked face and the stitched, disfigured eyes have become the symbol of the humanitarian fallout of the ongoing turmoil in the state.
“What shall we do to her now? How will she go about her life,” asks the distraught mother Afroza Malik, more to herself than to me. “She was the light of our house. Now darkness has enveloped her”.
Danish, 22, from Rainawari locality of the downtown Srinagar, has also been hit in both the eyes and stares into complete darkness. His father, a labourer, sits beside him with drooping shoulders. “I looked to him to slowly ease my burden,” he says not wishing to be identified. “Now I have to bear his burden too”.
But Danish, like Insha, is not aware of his plight and thinks he can see once his bandage is removed. “I work as a salesman for a private company,” he says. “I have to get back to work”.
There is also Asif Rashid, 7, who has lost one eye. And then Manzoor, 16, who similarly has lost his left eye while the right eye is partially expected to recover some vision.
Both relate stories of accidentally running into pellet fire. Around 190 patients with pellet injury in eyes have been admitted into the SMHS so far and the prognosis for a significant number of them is bleak.
“It’s a tragic story,” says a senior Ophthalmologist at the hospital. “We try our best but a pellet-pierced eye can never be same”.
Arafat Mir, 13, has not only been hit in the face but almost every organ of the body. “Pellets are in his face, heart, abdomen, even spine. He needs multiple surgeries,” the doctors attending to him say. “For now, we have put him under observation. We are seeing how he responds to the treatment”.
Mir, however, can’t endure the excruciating pain. “I can’t bear it, mother. Please tell the doctor,” Mir cries out. The father Abdur Rahman says that Mir was playing cricket on the lawn when he was subjected to pellet fire.
The father Abdur Rahman says that Mir was playing cricket on the lawn when he was subjected to pellet fire. Though SMHS has received hundreds of pellet cases over the past five years, the number of people hit now and the seriousness of their injuries surpasses anything witnessed in the past. The data presented by J&K government to the High Court on July 14 revealed that the number of people hit by pellets was no less than 600.
At the time, around 125 people had sustained injuries in the eyes. The number has since risen further. In the fortnight since the killing of Burhan, CRPF personnel alone have fired around 2,102 pellet cartridges to quell unrest.
Around 100 youth are expected to lose the vision in one or both the eyes, six of them including Insha have already been declared blind. Two people have lost their lives, taking the toll to 12 since August 2010, when pellet guns were first deployed in Kashmir as part of the crowd control gear of the police and paramilitary forces deployed in Kashmir.
The rising toll of blindings has forced the central government to announce setting up of an expert committee to review the use of pellet guns. The committee, home minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament on July 21, will present its report in two months. Singh also called on the forces to exercise maximum restraint in dealing with the crowds.
One reason for the grievous eye injuries is the firing of pellets from close quarters — not, as per regulation, above the knee of the protesters, a fact traced by the CRPF chief K Durga Prasad to the deficiency in the “annual training” of his personnel fighting the protesters.
In the fortnight since the killing of Burhan, CRPF personnel alone have fired around 1,202 cartridges to quell unrest. Around 100 youth might lose vision in one or both eyes
“As many as 114 companies, or over 11,000 personnel, have been pulled out midway through their training so they can be deployed in Kashmir to control the unrest”, CRPF DG K Durga Prasad told media.
“Our annual training has suffered as we are in continuous deployment. As of today, all our training companies in Kashmir are deployed to control the unrest there. Training companies from other states have also been pulled out,” Prasad said.
Prasad, however, justified the use of the pellet guns as they were the “least lethal” option to deal with the violent crowds. But for the patients at the Ophthalmology wards at SMHS, SKIMS hospital at Bemina, the pellet guns are disproportionately more lethal than the bullets.
“Bullets kill once and for all,” says Rahman, the father of Arafat Mir. “But pellets blind you for life, forcing you to live a life which is going to be worse than death”.