Kashmir’s pellet victims organize to look after themselves
The year was 2017. In the middle of a night, 28- year-old Mohamed Ashraf Wanihad been administered a tranquilizer in a hospital ward in Kashmir where his eyes were being treated for pellet inflicted injuries. As he was dozing off, his phone rang. The voice at the other end said that three of his friends were about to kill themselves and they wanted to inform him of their decision.
All the three had tricked their families and assembled in the dead of night near a bridge on the Jhelum river. The three friends had decided to jump into the gushing waters of the river and end their lives in unison. But they felt that they should call their friend, Ashraf, and bid goodbye. “We cannot bear the pain anymore. All have deserted us and this darkness is killing us every day,” said a cracking voice over the phone.
It was in 2016, after the killing of militant leader Burhan Wani, protests had erupted all over Kashmir Valley. To quell the swelling demonstrations, the government unleashed repression upon the demonstrators resulting in the killing of more than 90 people and injuring an estimated 11 thousand.
The New York Times, in one of its ground reports from Kashmir termed it “an epidemic of dead eyes”. Protesters were hit by pellet guns fired by the police. Thousands were blinded by this otherwise “non-lethal” weapon. Pellets were introduced in Kashmir as a “non-lethal” alternative to bullets to be used against protesters after security forces killed nearly 200 people from 2008 to 2010 during demonstrations against Indian rule. The state government’s reasoning was that when fired from a distance, shotgun pellets disperse and inflict only minor injuries.
The three friends who were calling Ashraf had also been hit by pellets during the 2016 protests and had lost sight partially. Handicapped, they considered themselves a burden on their families. Ashraf, himself was a pellet victim, undergoing surgery in his left eye. While his right eye was completely damaged, his left eye had blurred vision, leaving the 28-year old hopeful that someday he might be able to see.
“I had been admitted to the hospital that night. Soon after I got the call, I was shocked. I told them not to disconnect the call. I wanted them to continue the conversation and narrate to me the entire saga. There was no point lecturing them about morality or how beautiful life was. I just heard them crying, telling me how even their relatives and families had deserted them,” Ashraf recalled.
Ashraf kept the conversation going and as dawn approached with the call for prayers coming over from the mosque Ashraf promised his dejected friends the formation of an association that will cater to the needs of pellet victims in Kashmir and where they can have their say and become a powerful voice.
He promised his perturbed friends that he will never make them feel a burden on their families or relations. “We will find some way. Just don’t kill yourself,” Ashraf kept telling them till their suicidal thoughts vanished.
“This is how the Pellet Victims Welfare Trust came into being. We now have all the pellet victims registered with us. We often meet and discuss our problems and priorities,” Ashraf told South Asian Monitor.
The association provides financial help for medical treatment, education and other necessities to pellet victims. It had aided more than 1335 cases. Those hit by pellets need medical follow-ups every three weeks at least. But many are too poor to bear medical and travelling costs.
The eldest pellet victim is a 75-year old man from south Kashmir’s Pulwama and the youngest is an 18-month old baby, Hiba Nisar. “Where else in the world would you find a 75-year man and an 18-month old baby being victims of the same weapon which in foreign countries is used against animals?” Ashraf asked.
A graduate in Arts, Ashraf said that 65 percent of those hit by pellets in Kashmir are students and more than 10 percent are minors. Out of the total 1335 pellet victims, the government had aided only 18, not even one percent of the total.
“We filed a petition in the High Court seeking a blanket ban on pellets. We asked why the government in Kashmir is using it on unmarked protesters. But our plea was outrightly rejected. We don’t have enough resources to move our plea in a higher court,” Ashraf said.
He himself has more than 630 pellets embedded in his body. Just two months before pellets made him blind, he was hit by a bullet on his chest. During a protest demonstration in support of the slain Burhan Wani, the forces fired bullets on the protestors from point blank range, leaving scores wounded and several dead. A bullet struck Ashraf’s chest, as he happened to be in the market that day. For a week he was on a ventilator and in a state of coma. For more than a month, he remained bed ridden.
Just when he recovered and came home, another calamity hit him, this time in the shape of pellets. He was hit in the face and had to be rushed to hospital again. There, medicos declared him blind in his left eye while his right eye was damaged partially.
“If you need a true definition of pain, just ask a pellet victim. He will tell you what pain really means. We have suffered both physically as well as mentally,” Ashraf said.
According to him many of the victims have developed serious mental ailments and are under constant watch of psychiatrists.
“I have more than 630 pellets still embedded in my body. You know when temperature raises a bit during summer, these pellets heat up too and you get a feeling of being in hell. All you want is to die,” he said.
Ashraf told South Asian Monitor that the primary focus of the association is to make people aware of what the government has done to Kashmiris and why society should raise its voice to seek a blanket ban on pellet guns in Kashmir.
“As we seek donations every Friday in different mosques for our treatment and education costs, we tell people what pellets have done to us. We don’t want another generation of Kashmiris to suffer,” Ashraf said.
(Pictures by Umer Asif)