Kashmir Diary: Treating the dead eyes

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Representative image. Photograph by Ahmer Khan

A pellet injured boy at the ophthalmology ward of Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS) in Srinagar. Photograph by Ahmer Khan/Dawn
A pellet injured boy at the ophthalmology ward of Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS) in Srinagar. Photograph by Ahmer Khan/Dawn

The day began with a visit to the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS) in Srinagar. This is where most of the pellet gun victims have come for treatment. Since July 9, there have been more than 900 people admitted to this hospital with pellet injuries to their eyes. Some have been hit in both eyes. Doctors say that any kind of injury to eye which causes even temporary loss of vision is treated as a grievous injury. By that standard, they say, all the victims are grievously injured.

At the SMHS hospital, I was joined by a photo journalist who landed in Kashmir a couple of days back. We had a talented, energetic and incredibly helpful local reporter who guided us. She was very well connected. Everyone knew her in the hospital. When I had told a senior journalist from the valley that I wanted to meet those who have been injured during the unrest, he had connected me to this reporter and had said, “You don’t need to know anybody else.” He was right. She made my job much easier. As easy as it can be to talk to grievously wounded people who battle excruciating pain.

All the victims I met had lost vision in one of their eyes having been hit with pellets. Not all of them were keen on talking to us as they did not trust the media for two reasons; 1. The way the Indian electronic media has portrayed the uprising, 2. They fear that we might divulge their details to the intelligence agencies and the police who will later arrest them under the Public Safety Act.

I have been told by a few journalists that a significant proportion of the 15,000 who have been recently put behind bars, many under the Public Safety Act, are those who have been injured since July 9. This law allows the government to arrest and detain anyone who according to them is “acting in any manner prejudicial to the maintenance of public order” without trial for up to two years.

We were able to convince the survivors to talk and spoke to them for some time. It was emotionally distressing to listen to their stories. But, they remain upbeat as they remain hopeful that their vision will be restored. “That may or may not happen,” said a doctor who has been treating the patients. The doctors and the staff of the SMHS have to work overtime treating these patients. Anyone who comes to the SMHS with pellet injury to their eyes is operated upon immediately. There have been doctors from across India who have — of their own initiative — come to Srinagar to treat these patients. The treatment, however, will be a long and tedious process and the recovery uncertain.

The pellet injury has in many ways come to define this season of uprising in the valley. The pellet gun, categorized as non-lethal, was introduced in the Kashmir valley during the 2010 uprising with the aim of ‘reducing the number of casualties.’ Those who have lost vision in one or both of their eyes may not be counted under the ‘casualty’ bracket, but they have been scared for life. Their lives have been changed, their dreams shattered and their families devastated. Each time that they have to ask someone to help them have food, to take them for a walk, to read out the news to them or reassure them that Kashmir is still beautiful, the scar will only deepen. The pellet may have been dislodged from their eye, but it will remain lodged in their mind.

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