In midst winterâ€™s dumb and dim nature, 15-year-old Ifra Shakour sits quietly in her house situated inÂ Pulwama, the southern region of Indiaâ€™s only Muslim majority state- Kashmir.
She turns pale, downcast and shuddering as she tries to recall the â€˜dreadfulâ€™ day of October 31, 2016. Then tears begun to fall slowly from her eyes and stream down her cheeks unobserved by her and she too doesnâ€™t make any attempt to stop their flow. â€œI will never forget that day,â€ she says to South Asian Monitor in a cracked tone.
Ifra is one of the 1200 people blinded by the pellet guns in Kashmir during the six-month long agitation that engulfed Kashmir 2016. The wanted militant leader Burhan Wani was killed by the Indian army on July 8, that year. His death sparked wide scale protests from the next day of the encounter, resulting in the killing of 30 protestors in less than 24 hours. The subsequent outbreak of violence led to the killings of an estimated 90 people and injured around 11,000. For more than five months, curfew remained in force in sensitive areas of Kashmir. The year 2016 has seen the longest ever unrest in the Kashmir Valley’s modern history. While quelling the street protests, the army and para-military forces used pellet guns in large scale due to which an estimated number of 1209 persons lost eye sight in one or both eyes. Of them, as per the government data, 77 have had both eyes severely damaged while 21 have lost sight in one eye. Besides those blinded, the indiscriminate use of pellet guns have led to the deaths of 16 people and injured 7,000 others.
On October 31, 2016, there were young boys pelting stones at the army near to the house of Ifra. Out of curiosity, she went into the lawn of her house and saw policemen running towards her. â€œI too ran because I got scared. They caught me, dragged me ruthlessly in the lawn and then shot me with a pellet gun,â€ says Irfra.
Moments after the incident, she lay frozen with darkness all around and strange sounds bursting her ears. â€œI then placed my trembling hands upon my eyes and felt a liquid like substance pouring through my fingers. I knew I have been blinded.â€
Ifraâ€™s father Abdul Gani says when Ifra was taken to the hospital, it was found that pellets had torn through the retina and optic nerve of her right eye, rendering it completely blind. After two surgeries, she has regained some vision in her left eye. However, she says she is not able to read and write and hence couldnâ€™t continue her studies. â€œWhenever I look at the newspaper. I see a blur image. I have even forgotten how I look,â€ Ifra said amid loud sobs.
However, it is not Ifraâ€™s physical injury alone which is worrying her family. The abrupt change in her behaviour since the incident is proving worrisome with each passing day.Â Her father says she prefers to stay alone in her room and seldom allows anyone to enter. â€œShe hates to socialise even with her school friends and smashes things up in a bizarre way. We are all worried over her behaviour and fear she may cause harm to herself. We never place any sharp object around in her room and some member of family always maintains vigil around her,â€ Abdul Gani said to SAM.
In a report released in September last year, Amnesty International, a London-based human rightsâ€™ organisation, said a majority of the pellet victims in Kashmir have developed signs of depression, anxiety and loss of memory because of the trauma.
â€œThe victims face serious mental health issues including psychological trauma as well. Their lives have changed entirely and they are struggling to cope,â€ the report says. The report says that they are likely to face the effects of these injuries for years to come.
Kashmirâ€™s renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Arshid Hussain confirms that the pellet victims in Kashmir are developing traumatic and depressive symptoms due being maimed. â€œThere are many patients whose symptoms are severe enough to warrant treatment,â€ Dr Arshid told SAM.
I cannot rule out the suicidal tendencies among the pellet victims, there are many such cases being thoroughly examined, he added.
Zuhaib Maqbool, a 29-year-photo journalist from Kashmir was blinded by pellets when he was covering the 2016 protests in the old city of Kashmirâ€™s capital- Srinagar.
Doctors treating Zuhaib found severe symptoms of suicidal tendencies in him.Â â€œWhen I was injured everyone was there and after a week I was alone with darkness all around. I spent six months in my room with no one around,â€ says Zuhaib amid tears.
His family says Zuhaib now keeps all the bulbs on even during the night in his room to avoid nightmares. â€œNo matter how much shiny this world is, darkness has become the permanent part of my life,â€ he said.
During the treatment, Zuhaibâ€™s psychiatrist found symptoms of suicide and despondency taking toll in him.
Dr. Mohammad Muzaffar Khan, a leading psychiatrist of Kashmir who treats Zuhaib says all his emotions have frozen. â€œWhen a person suffers from stress, there is either a reaction of fight or flight. There is also a third reaction which is freeze. All his emotions have been frozen,â€ Dr. Muzzafar told to South Asian Monitor.
Insha, 15-year-old, class 9 student from Shopian district of South Kashmir lost both her eyes when she peeped through the window of her house during a protest demonstration in 2016.Â Little did she know that pellets would strike her eyes, leaving her in absolute darkness forever.Â She has been operated six times by leading ophthalmologists in Srinagar, New Delhi and Mumbai. However, everything so far has failed to make her see again.Â â€œTwo years have passed and the world around me is as black as night. I now guess the shape of things by touching them and I have forgotten all the colours and all the hues of the world,â€ she said.
Her father Mushtaq Ahmad Lone says the incident has bruised her daughter more mentally than physically. â€œNo matter how resilient and smiling she would appear from outside, from within,Â she is weak and fragile,â€ Lone said.
He added that after the incident, Insha often sinks into deep thoughts and her behaviour too changes abruptly sometimes. â€œShe wants to keep herself busy with one thing or the other. She sometimes keeps her books in front of her and begins feeling the pages by her hands but the idea of being blind takes her back to depression and anxiety,â€ Mushtaq said.
â€œSometimes under the thick veil of darkness, strange gleams flit and I think God has given me my sight back. Only recently I was told by the doctors that this is the moment of blood. Vain delusion,â€ Insha said with a smiling face.
The conflict in Kashmir dates back to 1947 when India and Pakistan become separate states after British rule ended. Both countries claim Kashmir in full and have fought at least three wars and countless skirmishes over it.
The Kashmir insurgency — which is vying for an independent Kashmir — erupted in 1990 has already claimed at least 100,000 lives, including those of civilians, militants and members of the security forces.
Pictures taken by Umer Asif