Last August, Danish Rajab Jhat, a strapping young man, could barely muster the strength to speak a few words. Jhat was in hospital, felled by pellets fired from shotguns. He would let out feeble cries as his relatives fanned him. The pellets caused Jhat’s left eye to explode while his right eye struggled to give him a glimpse of the world around him: a damp hospital ward filled with other pellet victims.
This was barely a month after the death of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in an encounter with security forces sparked protests in the Kashmir Valley, and a state crackdown.
Nearly a year later Jhat’s wounds have healed. His body has shrunk. Wearing a skull cap and ironed kurta at his humble home in Srinagar’s Rainawari area, Jhat still speaks little. His dead eyes tell of his trauma.
Jhat is among the 16 people as per doctors at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar, and six as per police officials, who have lost vision in both their eyes due to pellet injuries suffered during the 2016 unrest. An artificial eyeball has been placed in Jhat’s left eye socket, but three surgeries later he is still unable to see anything beyond shadows in his right eye.
Since the outbreak of unrest in Kashmir last year, the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar has received 1,043 cases of pellet injuries to the eyes, with 19 people sustaining injuries in both eyes.
Dr Tariq Qureshi, head of the ophthalmology department at the hospital, said that of the 1,043 pellet victims, about 800 to 900 continued to avail of free treatment at the hospital.
In March, the government publicised that the shotguns used to fire pellets would be fitted with deflectors that would allow the pellets to hit lower lower parts of the body, minimising upper body injuries. Though the use of pellets has gone down with the unrest fading, pellet victims continue to suffer.
Confined in darkness
Prior to his injuries Jhat would spend much of his day on the streets, working as a salesman, playing cricket or, in his spare time, idling away at shopfronts. Jhat has lost his job since he was injured last year, and his daily routine today consists of long hours spent in his unpainted, sparely furnished bedroom. He walks to the neighbourhood mosque for prayers only when he has someone to guide him there.
Faith has given Jhat the strength to continue. “What has happened, has happened,” Jhat said with a smile that did not fade throughout the conversation. “I used to have an Android phone, and used to check Facebook. I have a simple phone now but I can’t call someone unless I remember their number.”
He added: “I hear about many pellet hit people complaining to their families. Ye kya hua humei? [What has happened to us?] But I do not. I have faith in Allah.”
He said that he still hoped that his right eye would regain its vision. “If I start thinking about [complete loss of vision], then I will be in tension.”
His faith, however, was not enough to take his mind off his condition on Eid, which was celebrated on June 26. “I realised that I was fine last Eid but not this time,” he said. “I could not even see what I bought for Eid”.
A neighbour and friend purchased Jhat’s new Eid clothes and shoes for him.
While other pellet victims also remain confined indoors, they do not share Jhat’s resolve.
A few blocks from Jhat’s home is Zuhaib Hamza, a photojournalist who was hit in his face by pellets in September. The tall and muscular 33-year-old once strode the streets, cameras dangling from his shoulders, ready to document events.
Today, sitting in a room painted black, with dozens of empty cigarette packets scattered in a corner, Hamza summarised his situation as that of a “caged bird”.
The moment he was hit last September, and then operated upon, went by in a flash, said Hamza. But the days and months afterwards have been agonisingly slow. Now, he can see only from one eye. For the first five months after his injuries, Hamza said, he was unable to draw open the curtains in his home. “I was in the dark, about to lose my vision,” he said.
Hamza said: “It affects us a lot, mentally and emotionally. Within the blink of an eye, half one’s world is lost.”
A few mobile phone covers lay in front of him.
He brought out a plastic box to show a neat improvisation he made to pass away his time – a small power bank attached to a phone cover with customised circuits. “I want to work [as a photographer again] but I cannot,” he said. “I got my cameras reassembled, they were damaged with pellets. But still something does not let me work.”
Hamza spends his time these days making and unmaking such mobile phone covers. “There is nothing else to do,” he said.
Loneliness has been an even more difficult challenge. “I was alone for five months,” he said. “There were moments when I was lost.”
He added that there were some nights when he could not sleep and others when he would silently cry.
“Last year I was willing to die for my friends,” he said. “This year half of them are dead to me.” Hamza was referring to the fact that his friends have been avoiding him.
Dealing with his recovery, Hamza said, had made him “emotionally numb” and prone to forgetting things. “When you go through hell and come back, nothing bothers you anymore,” he said. Hamza is awaiting his fourth eye surgery in the coming months.
Some 30 km from Srinagar, in Pulwama district’s Rahmoo village, 18-year-old Shabroza Mir shares a similar problem of forgetting. She also admits to aggression. She was hit by pellets in October. A surgery she underwent recently to place an artificial lens in her left eye has left it bloodshot. Her right eye is unaffected.
“I forget things,” she said. “I have become easily irritable and get angry quite often. Sometimes I am angry at myself, thinking ‘why did I go out that day’?.”
Mir also spends most of her time indoors, venturing out occasionally to silently watch her friends play badminton.
A few blocks down the street, Ifra Jan’s grandfather says the 14-year-old has become aggressive. Last October, Jan suffered lost vision in one eye after she suffered pellet injuries.
Jan clenched her jaw as Abdul Aziz talked to her about not her taking medication properly. “They [pellet victims] have become angry,” he said. “We are afraid of talking to her now. Sometimes she thinks she won’t get better and she gets angry. She even beats up her littler sister.”
In North Kashmir’s Sopore, 16-year-old Saqib (name changed) is another such case. The family did not want to be identified for fear of the boy gaining the attention of the local police. The Class 10 student has undergone three eye surgeries but said that nothing has changed since last year July, when he was hit by pellets.
His elder sister said that Saqib is not in depression but has become angry and aggressive. She said that for months he would cry out of pain and upon realising that he has been badly injured.
The aggression began in the hospital ward,” she said. “He would shout that ‘I want to leave and catch hold of the policeman who did this to me.’”
At home, Saqib has grown indifferent to his family’s reprimands. “Earlier he would listen when counselled but today he responds to nothing,” the sister said. She added that stone pelting “brought shame to good families” and their “relatives visit less frequently now”.
Saqib disagreed. “It [stone pelting] isn’t wrong,” he retorted. Though he has not indulged in stone pelting since, his friends have continued to do so. “Last year we thought pellets could be removed from the eyes. We knew teargas but not pellets. Kismet ki baat hai. It is a matter of luck. If fate has it, we will get hit.”
Long healing process
Nighat Shafi Pandit, chairperson of the Help Foundation, which has facilitated the travel and treatment of several pellet-affected Kashmiris outside the state, said that pellet victims were “dejected with life”. Those affected this way mostly came from lower income groups – they could not afford specialised treatment.
Dr Tariq Qureshi said it was still premature to comment on the general recovery of pellet victims. “They have already been told that it is a one-and-a-half-year long process,” he said. “Some are deteriorating while others get good. Some need more surgeries. The process is going on.”
Qureshi said recovery ideally began after the second or the third surgeries. However, some patients deteriorated again after the second or third surgery, which required subsequent surgeries. “They have been in anger since day one,” he said.