‘Caught between the fear of arrest and need for compensation, most pellet victims of Kashmir are running out of money as they fund their medical check-ups, struggle to earn livelihood with handicap’
Umer Nazir, 12, dropped out of school last year, unable to bear the agony and frustration of not being able to see what his teacher wrote on the blackboard in school.
But till a few weeks ago, he was a normal class six student, a cheerful youngster growing up with loving parents and caring friends. Till that fateful day in July last year, when he was hit by a hail of pellets fired by security forces in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district.
It was just after security forces gunned down militant commander Burhan Wani on July 8, sparking months of violent protests across Kashmir. Under attack with stones and bricks, security forces retaliated with guns which fire tiny lead pellets with devastating effect.
At least 100 people, most of them civilians, were killed and scores injured across the Valley during the months-long protests and accompanying arson.
Rough estimates put the number of people with pellet injuries during the 2016 unrest at more than 6,000; more than 1,100 were hit in the eyes. The extensive use of pellet guns on civilians had sparked outrage and international rights group Amnesty started a campaign against the use of what the government says is a “non-lethal weapon”.
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Government officials said, none of the pellet victims have been paid any compensation so far but added they were considering applications for financial aid.
According to the findings of a survey by Help Foundation, a voluntary organisation, out of 535 survivors who need of immediate medical care, 487 were injured in one eye. In most cases victims required multiple surgeries.
“I am not able to read anything properly and so there was no point going to school and just stare at the blackboard aimlessly,” said Umer, who was injured while returning with friends from a memorial service for Burhan Wani.
“I used to play cricket but that’s also not possible now. I usually stay inside the house… watch a bit of TV with my left eye,” he added.
Umer said he wears glasses to help him see just that little bit more clearly but is still under the impression that it is just a passing phase and his normal vision will be restored.
Nighat Shafi Pandit, founder of Help Foundation which has funded more than 150 surgeries, said the organisation was imparting skills and training so that the survivors can earn a living.
“One of the major challenges they face is, whether they were stone pelters or not, it’s written on their face. It’s like a stigma. Many girls who had such injuries didn’t come forward for the fear of being harassed by the police,” Pandit added.
But Umer’s hardship is just a footnote to the bigger story of Kashmir, of an entire generation maimed for life, unable to live, unable to die.
In capital Srinagar, 13-year-old Nabeez Nasir Ahmad’s school grades have been steadily falling for the past six months.
“My head hurts a lot when I look at the blackboard so I am not able to concentrate for long. I end up not taking notes in class. I’m not able to see clearly from my left eye after I was hit by pellets,” said Nabeez, who was injured in September last year.
His father, a carpenter, was unable to raise funds for his surgery and took the help of an NGO.
“He was a really bright student but now he doesn’t even study. He gets frequent headaches,” Nafeez sister said at their residence in Revnwari Kalwal Mohalla. The family is clueless about seeking compensation amount and is not even aware of the process.
Other survivors face different problems.
For Danish Rajab Jhat (24), in Srinagar’s Rainawari locality, even stepping into the sunlight hurt his eyes. He lost his eyesight completely when he was hit by pellets on July 17 last year in his locality.
Danish claimed security forces fired on them apparently without provocation as they was no protests in the vicinity at that time.
“I can walk a little on my own but for everything else someone in the family has to help me. Friends used to visit me earlier but I have nothing to offer as I can’t even discuss movies or television shows with them. What else do I talk to them about?” Danish told HT, gazing at the floor all the time he spoke to this reporter.
“I don’t know what the government is waiting for. At least make me self-sustainable by teaching me some skills. I can’t be a burden on my family forever,” he added..
He used to earn Rs 8,000 every month before the incident. But now the family of five has to survive on the meagre earnings of his younger brother who gets get Rs 200-300 every day. The family has spent a large chunk of their savings, around Rs 4 lakh, on Danish’s surgeries.
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Most of the victims HT spoke to, said they have applied for compensation but haven’t received anything so far.
The government said it was unable to process compensation applications as the names and phone numbers provided by the victims are allegedly incorrect, probably to conceal identities.
Arshid Ahmad Dar, another survivor, said he too was yet to get any compensation.
Dar, injured in both eyes on July 29 last year while returning from afternoon prayers, said he has spent more than Rs 6 lakh on his surgeries, which restored 20% vision.
Dar’s family is surviving by growing vegetables and selling them off. “My wife is taking care of it now. I can’t even help her. We have a nine-month old kid, what am I to tell her? Bas ab jeena pasannd nahi hai (I don’t like living now), said Dar who earned Rs 30,000 as a cook to support his father, brother and two sisters.
Arshid Ahmad Dar was hit by pellets in both eyes in July 2016. While he has almost lost vision in his left eye, he managed to have 20% vision after undergoing complex surgeries. (Neelam Pandey/HT Photo)
Experts said rehabilitation was the key for pellet victims as most of them face severe depression.
“For the government they aren’t technically blind as you need to have 80% vision loss to be defined so. But at the same time they can’t do anything which, say a person with complete vision, can. Most of these victims end up sitting alone as their family continues with their daily chores,” said Peer GN Suhail, director at the Centre for Research and Development Policy (CRDP).
“They are the ones who have told me that while death gives at least a closure, the blindness is a constant reminder of the brutality they faced. It will only make them bitter,” he added.
Education minister Syed Altaf Bukhari admitted the state government has not been able to speed up rehabilitation of pellet victims.
“We have not been able to move at a pace we should have. I have to confess this,” he told HT.
Doctors also point out that most of the pellet victims suffered post-traumatic symptoms.
“Depression was severe in cases where the disability was severe. We provided crisis intervention and psychiatry help too. But somehow in these cases physical well-being takes precedence over mental help,” said Arshad Hussain, a psychiatrist at the SMHS hospital in Srinagar.
The scene in Kashmir now might be better than last year’s turmoil. But even small skirmishes leads to injuries to civilians. And this year too many have been injured.
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One among them is 22-year-old Sahil Ahmad Tramboo, son of a daily wage earner in Moran Village in Pulwama. He was injured outside his college on March 7 when protests broke out and security forces retaliated.
“We are not aware of any compensation scheme so haven’t applied for it. My brother can’t do anything now. His eyes are damaged completely so there’s no point in getting treatment,” his sister said.
Then there are other fears.
For Umer Nazir’s parents, their dreams of seeing him as an engineer are all but gone. And they are even afraid to claim compensation for his injuries.
“We have not asked for any compensation from the government as they might brand him a terrorist. We don’t want any case against him,” his mother said.