It had been three days since violence had broken out in Kashmir following the killing of militant leader Burhan Wani. Reports of widespread clashes and stone pelting at security forces were pouring in from across the Valley, especially near Insha Mushtaq’s home in troubled south Kashmir.
In the afternoon, the 15-year-old had just opened a street-facing window when her world went black – a pellet cartridge fired from a close range blinded her.
Since that day, July 11, the class 9 student has undergone a series of surgeries in Srinagar, Delhi and Mumbai hospitals but to no avail. “I can’t sleep at night. Sometimes I get scared. I sleep during the day,” she tells HT.
Insha became the global face of Kashmir’s pellet woes – hundreds of people who were blinded or maimed by pellet guns used by security forces to manage crowds.
Photos of her in dark glasses sparked sympathy and outrage on social media across the world. Yet, her world has changed forever.
In a small room in her home in the picturesque village of Sedow, around 60km from Srinagar, she sits wearing dark goggles. Her scarred forehead remains covered by a headscarf.
“I can’t see anything, but the pain is not as intense as earlier…” Insha’s voice breaks off.
At first, she could not even move around the house on her own, says Insha’s mother Afroza Bano. But now, she says, her daughter can at least sense the rooms by touching the walls and move without help.
On Insha’s lap lies a tablet phone, on which her cousin sister plays ‘Naat’ – Islamic songs praising Prophet Mohammad – for her.
The phone, Insha says, was gifted to her by Dr S Natarajan – a Padma Shri recipient and Mumbai-based ophthalmologist —who visited Srinagar thrice and operated on over 200 pellet victims. The blinding has not shattered Insha’s dreams especially that of continuing her education and becoming a doctor. Insha says that if vision, to whatever extent possible, comes back even in one eye, she will continue her education.
Writing exams with pellets in eye
Insha’s resilience is mirrored in 16-year-old Tabish Rafiq Bhat, who took his class 10 board examinations, despite his left eye being blinded by pellets. Tabish, a resident of Pampore town around 20km from Srinagar, was hit by pellets on July 9. Six pellets perforated his left eye, of which three still remain lodged inside even after rounds of surgeries and check-ups at Srinagar and Amritsar hospitals.
His uncle, Abdul Majeed Bhat, says he was not pelting stones but caught in between protesters and forces while returning from tuition classes. “Doctors have told me I will never be able to see with my left eye again,” says Tabish, who aspires to do an MBA course in the future. Undeterred by his partial blindness, Bhat chose to sit for exams in the November session. But preparing for exams in such a condition was not easy. “My right eye starts watering after reading or writing for some time. A headache starts and I cannot concentrate for a long time,” says Tabish, who does not wear glasses to cover the injured eye.
‘I will be back’
Like Bhat, Zuhaib Maqbool – a 30-year-old Srinagar-based photojournalist whose left eye was blinded by pellets when he was covering a protest – is also “hopeful” of his return to photography. “All my colleagues are out there covering the conflict while I’m battling my injury. I was not throwing stones but doing my job,” says Zuhaib.
Sporting shades to cover the blinded eye, Zuhaib waits for his turn at the crowded ophthalmology department of Srinagar’s SMHS hospital. In three months, Zuhaib has undergone four surgeries apart from making umpteen rounds for check-ups.
But Zuhaib’s resilience is unmistakable. “I won’t give up journalism. I will be back even if with only one eye,” quips the photographer.