At the dusk, prior to New Year 2018, 19-years-old, Manzoor Ahmad Rather, was one among the thousands who held a local militant, Manzoor Ahmad Baba, on their shoulders in the Drabgam area of Pulwama. After the seven rounds of prayers, civilians headed back.

On their way back home, an army vehicle was passing by. The visuals encouraged the anger of grief, and youth picked up stones to protest against the killing. Army personnel retaliated by teargas shells and bullets.

“We were furious.The speakers at his funeral glorified his sacrifice and also mourned his martyrdom,” said Rather, sitting in a shop in Pulwama, where he is now working as a salesman. Gathering consciousness, Rather continued to narrate how he tried to run towards an apple orchard, nearby, to avoid the fierce bullets.

In the canvas of vengeance, two bullets found him; one on his left shoulder and another on the right-side of the face – making its way out through the lower-left of the eye. He lied there for 20 minutes; no one came to pick him up. “They ran to save themselves,” said Rather.

He gained consciousness at the hospital. “I can’t define the pain, I went through that time,” said Rather. After two failed attempts to fix his face at a hospital, class 11 student from Tahab area of Pulwama lost his face.

Born in a farmer’s family, Rather quit his studies soon after the incident. Fearing the stigma around his ‘disfigured face’, he started skipping social gatherings; family, friends, and places – he gave up all.

To meet the ends, he is now working as a salesman at his kin’s shop.

“It is easy for people to tap my shoulder and say, ‘you will be accepted,’ but in reality, I’m being alienated and judged,” he says, walking away from the wetness on the scared face, he continued, “We live in a society, where one’s appearance is dominant. I have it lost now.”

Living with the stigma of identity, in past eight years, as per the Maxillofacial department of the Srinagar Dental College, more than 5000 youth have received face injuries in Kashmir Valley. “Almost 700 face-reconstruction surgeries have been performed in the Valley,” an official from the the department said. “Since 2008, in a huge number of cases, bullets had crushed the pieces of jawline bone.”

The injuries to the mouth, teeth, jaw and face have been more since 2008 than the previous two decades put together, suggesting that the violence against the protestors has become deadlier.

Dr. Ajaz Ahmad Shah, Head of the Department of the Maxillofacial at Srinagar Dental College, told The Kashmir Walla that the numbers were low till 2008 as civilian protests were somewhat less but since then, the numbers have tripled up.

“During the 2009 Asiya-Neelofar rape-and-murder agitation, the numbers swelled as doctors of the maxillofacial wing started adapting to a new working style, where the cases of injuries would crop up every hour,” he said.

He termed the working environment at the maxillofacial department during 2016 uprising as ‘chaotic’ adding that the patients with stone, pellet and bullet injuries were more in 2016 than in 2010 when most injuries were caused by tear gas canisters.

Resisting the ‘occupation’, the resilient Kashmir has witnessed almost half-dozen civilian uprisings; 2008, 2010, 2016 and more. 400 civilian killing, and thousands of injured. In those killings, the majority were youth; youngest was 9-year-old.

On 6 May 2018, Hizb Militant commander of Kulgam District, South Kashmir, Saddam Padder was killed in an encounter along with his four associates. One among them was assistant sociology professor, Dr. Muhammad Rafi Bhat, who had joined ranks just before 40 hours. Being a close aide of the late militant commander Burhan Wani, Padder also attracted a sea of protestors near the encounter site; with straight motive to hurdle the government forces’ operation.

One such was 17-year-old, Owais Ahmad.

Against the Code of Conduct, government forces’ retaliated stones with teargas shells, pellets, and bullets.

As Ahmad recalled the ‘horrific day’, he remembers a sound of gunshot, and a bullet piercing his face. “It felt like someone had put the hot iron rod through my jaw, running out from the opposite side. I couldn’t figure out what was happening. Soon, the blood started dripping from my mouth; and I screamed,” recalled Ahmad.

Ahmad was immediately moved to the Shopian District Hospital for treatment. He was later shifted to Srinagar. Doctors operated upon Ahmad in an emergency ward.

He lost 18 teeth and his wound was sewed up by more than 50 stitches – inside and outside his mouth.

The brutal incident has not only changed Ahmad’s life, but also of his family. When the news of ‘bullet hitting his face’ got around, his mother, fearing son’s death, got an heart-attack. “She is still on medicines,” said Ahmad.

“Now, I don’t sit with my family often, especially in front of my mother. Till now, we have paid 400,000 rupees for my treatment,” he said, soon the pessimism took over his voice and he continued, “Now, we are fighting it economically as well.”

Not being able to focus on the studies ‘kills him silently’. Though the incident has not changed the warmth of his friends for him, he is the one who is cutting himself out.

In another case from Central Kashmir’s Budgam district, 40-year-old, Mohammad Ayoub, was sitting next to a cop inside a cab at the main bus stop on the last Friday (Jumat-ul-wida) of the Ramadan in 2016.

Amid the chaos of daily life, a masked man made his way to the window of the cab and pointed the gun towards the cop. Aiming the cop’s head, he fired two shots; one passed the cop, kissing his upper lip, then to hit Ayoub’s throat and passing out by other side of his face.

The masked gunman fled from the spot. Panicked public ran around to find a way out. Blood was oozing from Ayoub’s mouth. “I was there for 10 minutes and no one came to pick me,” said Ayoub. In the following few crucial minutes, a local rushed him to a nearest hospital. Soon, he was rushed to SHMS hospital in Srinagar.

Sharing the ‘life-taking’ episode, Ayoub remembers his continuous uttering on his way to hospital, “Who will take care of my kids?”

After being operated, Ayoub lost 8 teeth and his face was scarred – forever.

Ayoub works as an agent at cab stand, Pakherpora (Budgam District). He was under treatment for three months at the hospital.

Being an economically weak family, it was difficult to meet the expenses for his treatment. “Whenever doctors gave me new medicines, my wife only asked them, ‘how much will this cost?’” said Ayoub.

After being promised of full-compensation by the government, the ‘complete file’ submitted by Ayoub finds itself on the rusted shelves of the government offices.

Talking about the struggle, Ayoub said, “I also submitted the file at DC office Budgam. They asked me to take 5000 rupees, and stay quiet.”

Mohammed Ayoub refused the offer.

Bullet only scars faces, but living with continuous trauma scars psychology. Many among such cases have developed signs of depression, anxiety, and loss of memory as well.

By the time, government or human rights organisations take any measure to protect such human rights violations, many Mohammad Ayoub or Manzoor Ahmad Rather would have lost their identity.

One day, way ahead from here – past the flames of conflict – one of them might walk up to the mirror and realize, it would have been different if they would have never born in the “heaven.”

Cover photograph: Manzoor Ahmad Rather, whose face has been disfigured due to a bullet injury. Photograph by Vikar Syed

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