Young men with dark glasses to cover their dead eyes lie on beds and stare blankly into the horizon. Their families are scattered nearby, some are anxious, but most are resigned to the injuries of their loved ones. The air is sombre but defiant.
This is the sight that welcomes visitors when they step into wards seven and eight of Srinagar’s SMHS hospital.
Pellet guns, a “non-lethal” weapon used for crowd control in Kashmir, has killed at least eight and maimed thousands in the ongoing unrest that was sparked by the killing of insurgent leader Burhan Wani in July.
Hospital records accessed by HT show most pellet victims with eye injuries are teenagers.
SMHS has seen the highest turnout of pellet victims and treated more than 750 patients hit in the eyes. Many of them have injuries in both eyes and others have blurred vision, at best.
Eid festivities across the Valley were a gloomy affair last week as many of the young victims celebrated the popular festival without eyesight, grappling in the dark.
The mounting injuries have triggered international outrage but in SMHS, not everyone is angry. Bandipora resident Muzamil says he is happy he lost his left eye as he could make a qurbani (sacrifice) for the struggle.
Muzamil’s family says he is a student at a madarsa in Lucknow and had come home for Eid – only for the celebration to turn into a nightmare.
“Hamari baat India ko sunni chahiye. Humein Azaadi chahiye. (India should listen to what Kashmir is saying. Kashmir wants freedom),” he says, sitting on his bed in a white kurta pajama, a skull cap and black shades.
This Eid was also tragic for 18-year-old Shabir Ahmad, a carpenter and the main bread-winner of his family. A resident of Sopore town in north Kashmir, Ahmad now lies in Ward 8 after losing both his eyes to pellets.
“It was around 11 am. We were returning home after Eid prayers at the local masjid when the forces shot tear gas and pellets at us,” Shabir says, adding there was no stone-pelting at that time.
How does he feel about losing his eyes? The realisation has not sunk in, yet. But what has taken over him, is an overwhelming feeling of “Azaadi”(freedom). “I hope to regain eyesight soon, but I don’t know...But from what I suffer and what’s going on in Kashmir, I feel the one word is ‘Azaadi’.”
Despite strident criticism and an alternative announced by the government, forces still use pellet guns across Kashmir. Experts say the guns are less-lethal and can kill many.
Pellet victims are no ordinary patients. Many of them are forced to register under false names as police spy and gather information on them even in the hospital, because the state sees them as part of “stone-pelting mobs”.
For this reason, 18-year-old Touseef Ahmad, whose left eye was damaged with two pellets, double checks this reporter’s identity before speaking.
A Class 12 student, Touseef was hit by pellets in his eyes and liver on August 12 in Kupwara district. This is his third trip to SMHS hospital following two rounds of surgeries. There is no vision in the left eye and there is little hope for a recovery. But Touseef can see with his right eye.
Since the injury, Touseef says he has faced problems in his daily activities. But he “doesn’t care”. “If the struggle for Azaadi demands my other eye, I am willing to give it too.”
Doctors at the SMHS hospital say although sight “to some extent” will be restored in a majority of patients but most victims will never attain “normal vision”. The injury will impact the mobility and psychology of patients, they add.
“80% of the patients will recover eyesight to some extent. And once they recover even little, it will improve,” says Dr Tariq Qureshi, head of the department of ophthalmology at the Government Medical College in Srinagar.