August 2018 News

Victims Of Pellet Guns, Kashmir's Women Battle Depression, Anxiety With Little Help From Government

20 August 2018
Nusrat Sidiq

Srinagar: In September 2016, two months after the Hizbul Muzahideen's poster boy, Burhan Muzaffar Wani, was killed by security forces in an encounter in Anantnag's Kokernag village, the entire Valley was in the grip of an unrest as tear gas, PAVA shells and pellets made way into its silent and inconspicuous corners. On 9 September, 2016, in Baramulla district's Sheeri village, Shakeela Bano was stooped over the kitchen sink washing the dishes when she heard a neighbour yell about the army and police coming to look for some boys who were part of the protests. 'Panicking, I rushed out of the house to look for my then five-year-old son. A policeman, hiding under a tin roof some distance from our house, fired pellets straight into my eyes. I lost sight in my left eye,' said Bano, who is in her late thirties. Divorced by her husband, she has been living with her ailing mother and brother's family. The non-lethal pellets, as the police claim, had shattered the delicate tissues of Bano's left eye and injured other parts of her face, too, leaving her reeling in pain and mental agony. 'A disabled woman is a burden on her family. Remarriage is out of question for someone like me,' she said. Wani's killing on 8 July, 2016, provoked mass mourning across the Valley, and simmering tension led to frequent clashes in various parts of the region. Around 90 people were killed and over 12,000 - according to medical records of various hospitals in the region - sustained injuries. This was when the use of pellet guns - officially called pump-action guns - in the Valley was at its highest. Never as good as before: Pellet hits have brought much more grief than the immediate searing pain in the lives of several women. Medical bills run high for painful and prolonged treatment. The recovery, however, is never enough to be as good as before. After three surgeries at a hospital in Amritsar and one in Srinagar, Bano has only partial vision in her right eye, with a pellet still embedded in it. 'My disability has also ruined my brother's dreams of seeing me back with my husband. He even sold a piece of land for my treatment. The medical bills have run as high as Rs 7 lakh, but the government has not provided any compensation,' Bano said. According to a report submitted by government authorities to the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission, the uprising had left more than 1,724 people partially or fully-blinded. The report also identifies 59 women who were victims of the pellet guns, most of them targeted inside their homes. 'Many of the injured women were not even part of the protests but were still shot at from very close range,' said Mohammad Ahsan Untoo, a human rights activist. Three days after Wani's death, 11-year-old Tammana Ashiq's world also fell apart. While playing near a window in her house, the young girl was hit by pellets that grievously injured her left eye, forehead and neck. She has undergone three surgeries so far at an Amritsar hospital, but doctors have failed to restore vision in her eye. 'We sold our house and most of my jewellery for Tammana's treatment. My husband is a labourer and earns less than Rs 7,000 per month. No government relief has been provided to us,' her mother Shameema Ashiq said. 'I still get nightmares and feel that I have become a burden on my family,' Tammana said. Education affected: Medical expenses and prolonged treatment have also forced many girls to discontinue their education. Neighbours Ifrah Shakoor and Shabroza Mir were hit by pellets in 2016. Both lost sight in one of their eyes, which forced them to drop out of college. Ifrah, 17, whose house is on a main road in Pulwama's Rahmoo village, was shot by pellet guns when she left home to fetch her younger brother on 31 July, 2016. She was taken to the district hospital in Pulwama from where doctors had referred her to the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital in Srinagar. The teenager had already lost her father to cross-border firing in 2007 and has been living with her grandfather, Abdul Aziz. 'She lost complete vision in her left eye and can only partially see from the right,' Aziz said. 'It has been extremely distressing for her. She underwent three surgeries and could not focus on her studies. I also get depressed when I think about her future.' Shabroza, 17, was similarly hit by pellets on 31 October, 2016, when the rest of her family was out shopping for her elder sister's wedding. A massive protest had erupted in her village, and security personnel had barged into homes 'in a bid to contain violence'. Sensing trouble, Shabroza had decided to leave the house. 'They (security forces) were beating people and breaking whatever was in their way. There was jewellery and other expensive items at home. I was scared and could not decide what to do,' she recalled. 'I thought if the army men came inside our house, they might harm me, so I ran outside for safety.' Little did she realise that her run for safety would end up making her life miserable. As she rushed to her neighbour's house, Shabroza was hit by a pump-action gun that sprayed pellets at her. She collapsed midway. 'I don't know what happened after that. When I opened my eyes, I found myself in a hospital. There was darkness all around. I lost vision in my left eye and had to stop my studies,' she rued. What doctors say: According to records at the SMHS Hospital in Srinagar, at least 1,209 people with pellet injuries in one or both eyes have visited the facility for treatment since July 2016. Of them, 77 were completely blinded and 21 had lost vision in one eye entirely. Dr Bashir Ahmed, a private eye surgeon based out of Srinagar, said: 'Our main worry is the long-term impact of a pellet injury on a person. There is a dire need to counsel and rehabilitate these victims.' Ophthalmologists at the hospital also said that women hit by pellets show higher signs of anxiety and depression than their male counterparts. 'We take care of the victims' physical wounds. But the injuries scar their confidence for life,' said a senior ophthalmologist at the hospital, who did not wish to be named. Dr Arshad Hussain, professor of psychiatry at the Government Medical College in Srinagar, said: 'The victims who have lost sight and lack both social and economic support are at greater risk of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression.' The Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Srinagar has been conducting a study to understand the mental health of pellet victims. Few FIRs registered: Insha Mushtaq, 17, is now blind because of pellet injuries. An FIR was subsequently registered against security forces two years ago, but no challan has been produced before court against the accused personnel. A police officer, seeking anonymity, said, 'We are about to complete the investigation in this case and shall file the chargesheet soon.' When asked why so few FIRs have been registered in such cases till date, the official said that many pellet victims were involved in protests, and if some of them were hit accidentally or unknowingly by security personnel, they should have approached the concerned police stations to register FIRs. However, the family members of a few victims asserted that it is the government's responsibility to investigate and punish the guilty. They have hardly had any time to file FIRs, busy running from one hospital to another for treatment, they victims' kin said. 'I have accompanied victims to several police stations in the past few months, but officers have refused to file FIRs,' said human rights activist Untoo. 'They even threatened to register cases against male victims for taking part in protests. What about all those cases where women were targeted? They were hit inside their homes by security forces. Why doesn't the state government bring to justice the culprits who disabled many young girls and elderly women?' Shesh Paul Vaid, the Director General of Police of Jammu and Kashmir, said, 'Security personnel do not want to use pellet guns, but the violent protestors compel them to do so.' On 13 September, 2017, Amnesty International India had released a report on the pellet victims of Jammu and Kashmir and demanded a 'prompt, independent and impartial civilian criminal investigation' into all incidents where firing pump-action guns led to deaths or serious injuries. However, no such inquiry has been initiated till date. Rehabilitation policy a sham: Last year, the Jammu and Kashmir government had announced jobs for victims who were grievously injured by pellets. But so far, only 13 of those affected have been given jobs and 22 others offered financial assistance, according to information shared in the state Assembly on 24 January. Dozens of pellet victims have now banded together under an association called the Pellet Victims Welfare Trust (PVWT). Mohammad Ashraf Wani, head of the PVWT, said, 'The government has failed to rehabilitate the victims. It has left them to fend for themselves. We don't trust the authorities anymore.' Mohammad, a resident of South Kashmir's Pulwama district, was injured during the 2016 unrest and lost 50 percent of his eyesight. 'Our association has 3,300 members who were either injured by tear gas shells, bullets or pellet guns. More than 1,250 of our members have lost their eyesight,' he added. The author is a Srinagar-based freelance writer and a member of