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 all regions of 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 to see what had happened to the young stone-pelters when her world went black – a pellet cartridge fired from a close range had burst at her forehead and 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. Hospital data show that the eyes of more than 1,000 people were pierced by pellets in the ongoing unrest, leading to either complete or partial blindness.
Photos of her in dark glasses sparked sympathy and outrage on social media across the world; international media covered her plight, chief minister Mehbooba Mufti offered to donate an eye to her and a senior separatist leader, Shabir Shah, claimed to have adopted her.
Yet, her world has changed forever.
In a small room in her home in the picturesque remote 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.
But Insha cannot study and her books lie untouched, tucked in her school bag.
“Most of the time I sleep. Then I eat, drink tea and again sleep. Sometimes I chat with my cousins or any friend who visits,” says Insha.
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 Mumbai-based ophthalmologist -- who visited Srinagar thrice in the unrest and operated on over 200 pellet victims.
Insha is scheduled to travel to Mumbai in December for a check-up by Dr Natarajan and prays that in the coming months somehow a little vision is restored.
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, which ended on Monday, despite his left eye blinded by pellets.
Tabish, a resident of Pampore town around 20km away from Srinagar, was hit by pellets on July 9. Six pellets perforated his left eye, of which three still remained 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 because he felt he would score more with the 50% syllabus relaxation announced by the government due to the unrest. Board exams would also be conducted in March for students failing to appear this time, but without syllabus relaxation.
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.
Tabish appeared for the exam without any ‘helper’ – sanctioned by the government for those students injured in the unrest – and is hopeful he will fare well.
‘I will be back’
Like Bhat, Zuhaib Maqbool – a 30-year-old Srinagar-based photojournalist whose left eye was blinded by pellets when forces used the weapon to quell the protest he was covering on September 4 – 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 red shades to cover the blinded eye, Zuhaib waits for his turn outside the “Follow Up” ward at the crowded ophthalmology department of Srinagar’s SMHS hospital.
In the last three months, Zuhaib has undergone four surgeries at the hospital apart from making umpteen rounds for check-ups and tests.
“With an injured eye, you have to be very careful. Dust or water shouldn’t go in and the eye should not catch an infection,” adds Zuhaib.
He explains that he can comfortably see whatever is to his right but not left. So, now, his friends place him to the leftmost when they walk in a group.
Zuhaib’ story had brought into focus the perils of working as a journalist in Kashmir – facing the wrath of both protestors and security forces. But his resilience is unmistakable.
“I won’t give up journalism. I will be back even if with only one eye,” quips the photographer as his father guides him into the doctor’s cabin.