Conflict in Kashmir Takes a Grim Toll on Unwitting Victims
Wounds old and new deepen in a generations-old, seemingly endless struggle.
By Rania Abouzeid
Photographs by Cédric Gerbehaye
Farzan Sheikh, then 16, was shot in the left eye by an Indian policeman with a pellet gun on March 28, 2017. It happened in his neighborhood in Srinagar, in Indian-administered Kashmir. Sheikh was an unwitting victim again last August, when pellets blinded his right eye. “He moves with the memory of the house,” says his mother, Muzamil.
Farzan Sheikh was in his bedroom doing his ninth-grade math homework when he heard a commotion outside. It was late in the afternoon of March 28, 2017, and a funeral procession was passing by in his neighborhood in Srinagar, in the part of Kashmir that’s administered by India.
Curiosity drew the then 16-year-old into the street, where he glimpsed a shrouded corpse carried by mourners. Then he heard pro-Kashmir slogans and saw Indian police use tear gas and pellet-firing shotguns to scatter the crowd. Sheikh ran toward the narrow alley leading to his home.
India and Pakistan both claim Kashmir—a disputed region of some 18 million people. India administers the area south of the Line of Control; Pakistan administers northwestern Kashmir. China took eastern Kashmir from India in a 1962 war.
“I saw a policeman with a gun aiming at me, and he shot directly at me,” he said. “That was the last thing I saw.”
The schoolboy fell to the ground, bleeding from his left eye; the left side of his abdomen and his neck and chest were pierced with countless lead pellets. A stranger on a scooter rushed him to Srinagar’s SMHS Hospital, the main state-run facility, where his parents found him.
Sheikh had been shot with a weapon that Amnesty International has asked India to ban. Each pellet gun cartridge contains up to 630 metallic fragments that disperse indiscriminately. Indian security forces use the weapons to quell unrest without deadly force, but the pellets still can maim people.
The troubles in Kashmir are at least as old as the modern states of India and Pakistan, both created in 1947. Since then those nations have gone to war twice over this Muslim-majority Himalayan region, which they both claim but have cleaved between them. China also has a stake, controlling almost one-fifth of Kashmir. The Indian-administered section, comprising the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is the only state in India where Muslims vastly outnumber Hindus—about 68 percent to 28 percent—with Sikhs, Buddhists, and Christians making up the rest.
For decades many Kashmiris have sought independence, while others identify with and want to become part of either Pakistan or India.
Since 1989 a militant wing of the Kashmiri separatist movement has intensified this territorial dispute. The Indian government considers the armed element a terrorist insurgency and counters with soldiers and paramilitary units such as the Central Reserve Police Force. The conflict has claimed some 40,000 lives (according to India) or closer to 95,000 (according to Kashmiri separatists).
An outpouring of grief, anger, and defiance as mourners bid farewell to a Kashmiri militant killed in clashes with Indian security forces in southern Kashmir.
Although protests over various issues take place periodically across India, only in Kashmir have Indian police used pellet guns, going back to at least 2010, after that year’s bloody summer, in which more than a hundred protesters were shot dead. They’ve been in wide use particularly since July 2016, when Burhan Wani—a popular, social media–savvy militant separatist leader in his 20s—was killed in a gun battle with government forces. The Central Reserve Police Force declined to answer questions about its use of pellet guns.
Wani’s death brought Kashmiris out into the streets and precipitated a months-long general strike. The state imposed curfews and censorship and used violence to quell the unrest, killing dozens and maiming thousands. A number of members of the security forces were also killed or injured.
All across Indian-administered Kashmir, armed men in uniform are stationed in markets, along alleyways and highways, in apple orchards, near schools and colleges. “If a civilian throws a stone, they will fire at them—same treatment as a militant,” said Zahoor Wani, Amnesty International’s senior campaigner in Srinagar, the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. (Jammu is the winter capital.)
Left: An Indian police officer stands guard with a pellet gun. Each cartridge contains up to 630 metallic fragments that disperse indiscriminately.
Right: Officers also use tear gas to quell unrest.
The result, over decades, has been deepening resentment. “If you talk about anti-India sentiment here, maybe 70 years ago it was on your tongue, not deep in you,” Wani said. “Then it went in the blood. Now it’s in the genes. Every generation it gets stronger.”
The writing is literally on the wall. In Srinagar and in the towns and villages to the north and south, political graffiti is pointed: pro-freedom, anti-India, or pro-Pakistan. Slogans laud the late militant leader Burhan Wani, and you see messages like this: “Al Qaeda coming soon.” At some protests the banners of al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Taliban have been raised. The Islamic State claimed its first attack in Indian Kashmir in November 2017.
Protesters in Srinagar take a break from pelting stones at security forces. Anti-India sentiment, says Amnesty International’s Zahoor Wani, is “in the genes.”
A member of the Indian police wields a slingshot against protesters. More often the police use pellet guns, which can maim and blind indiscriminately.
Umar Farooq, the mirwaiz, or spiritual leader, of Kashmir’s Muslims, said “Kashmir is a political problem, not a religious problem,” but, he said, the introduction of transnational ideologies into the Kashmiri struggle is “a genuine fear.” The 45-year-old mirwaiz—the 13th to hold that title, which has been in his family for the past 300 years—is also chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a political alliance of Kashmiri separatist groups.
Left: The Central Reserve Police Force uses a variety of weapons, including pellet guns, tear gas, and slingshots that hurl stones when glass marbles aren’t available.
Right: A box containing tear gas shells sits on a wall during a government-imposed curfew in the Bohri Kadal area of Srinagar. Indian police often use tear gas to disperse protesters.
On a sunny fall day in 2017, the mirwaiz walked through the well-kept grounds of Kashmir’s Jama Masjid—the main mosque in the heart of downtown Srinagar and a hub of pro-Kashmiri sentiment—surrounded by a security detail of about half a dozen Kalashnikov-toting guards. It was a rare outing for a religious and political leader who had been under house arrest 37 times during the past year alone, spending more than 120 days forcibly confined behind his front door. The mosque too had been under restrictions for five straight weeks, with security forces preventing Friday prayers for fear they’d morph into anti-India protests.
Unrest flares outside Jama Masjid, Srinagar’s main mosque, located in the heart of downtown. The mosque is a hub of pro-Kashmiri sentiment.
“We don’t want our young people, our men, to get consumed in violence, but the fact is, there’s very little we can do,” Farooq said. “We’re in a position where we can’t even talk to the people. When you’re choking political space, when you’re not letting people come out and discuss and debate and interact, you’re pushing them. India talks about radicalization—who is responsible for that radicalization?”
In the SMHS Hospital in Srinagar, the schoolboy Farzan Sheikh woke to a doctor standing over him, asking how many fingers he was holding up. Sheikh couldn’t see anything through his left eye.
After two months convalescing at home, he returned to school, hoping, despite his disability, to pass his exams. As an incentive, an older friend promised that if Sheikh did well, he’d take him on a three-day camping and hiking trek to Gangabal Lake, in the foothills of Mount Haramukh, north of Srinagar. The trip was scheduled for August 13.
On August 7 Sheikh returned home giddy after finalizing the hiking plans. That night his father didn’t go out, as he usually did, to flip the breaker switch to turn off the streetlight that shone directly into Sheikh’s upper-floor bedroom, disturbing his son’s sleep. So Sheikh ventured out to do it. It was about 11 p.m.
“As I shut the switch, I heard a vehicle,” he remembered. “There were no protests. Nothing was going on at that time.” It was a Central Reserve Police Force vehicle parked across the street near a fruit stall that was still open. Sheikh didn’t hear a warning call from the vehicle, just the crack of what sounded like a bullet, amplified in the quiet of night.
Sahil Hamid, 18, was playing cricket near his home when an Indian military convoy sped past. The last vehicle slowed, Hamid says, and without warning, somebody inside it “simply shot me.” His face is scarred by pellets.
“The first thing I shouted was, ‘Mama, I’m hit with a bullet!’” Sheikh said. “I tried to walk back to my door, but I fell down. My father came to the window and said, ‘Don’t shout at the police! They will shoot!’ He didn’t recognize that it was his son who was shouting.”
An x-ray shows the pellet-peppered skull of 19-year-old Basit Ahmad Malla, shot in 2014 by Indian security forces on his way to his mosque.
Sheikh’s parents rushed him to the hospital. He was bleeding so profusely from his face that his mother couldn’t tell where he was hit or by what.
Sheikh once again regained consciousness in a hospital bed. Once again he’d been shot with a pellet gun, in his right eye this time.
“When I opened my eyes, it was total darkness,” the teenager said. “I was OK after the one eye, but when it happened to my other eye, I totally lost hope.”
“We don’t understand why they shot him,” Sheikh’s mother, Muzamil, said. “We don’t know how it happened—like a bad dream.”
Sheikh is one of more than a thousand pellet gun cases that the ophthalmology department at the SMHS Hospital has treated since July 2016. On the worst days the hospital’s four dedicated operating theaters, as well as a trauma theater in the emergency department, are all simultaneously pressed into action to treat pellet victims—as many as 20 people a day.
“I never thought I’d be doing something like this for eyes,” said Sajad Khanday, a consulting ophthalmologist at the hospital, by which he means extracting pellets of various shapes—some globular like ball bearings, others sharp edged and irregular—from patients as young as three and as old as 70.
Khanday said 2016 and 2017 were the worst years in the 15 he’s been practicing in Kashmir. “There’s been a surge, a spike in eye injuries which I’ve never seen before. It’s startling.” He said he can remove only the superficial pellets and that those deeply embedded remain in situ, with unclear long-term complications. The surgery is delicate, but the hardest part, Khanday said, is being at the bedside when a patient like Sheikh first opens his eyes. “It’s a very painful experience.”
The fathers of these girls—believing their hallucinations, headaches, and fainting spells are a form of post-traumatic stress disorder—seek help for them from a traditional faith healer.
For some victims the physical trauma is compounded by their inability to get what they consider justice from the state. By law India’s men in uniform have been immune from prosecution in civilian courts since at least 1990 under the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act.
According to Amnesty International’s Wani, “Section 7 of this law mandates that even after a security forces personnel is found involved in a human rights violation, a civilian court can’t charge him, can’t prosecute the person, until and unless the government of India gives permission to the court” to do so. Hundreds of such cases are languishing in the courts, Wani said. “For some it has been 20 years, 25 years, 15 years, and the government of India has not responded.”
A LONG WAIT
Other Kashmiris are also waiting for justice and accountability—or at least information about their loved ones. Pellets and bullets inflict one form of harm, while enforced disappearances exact another.
Muneera Begum’s husband, Mohammad Akbar Rather, was last seen on November 28, 1996. The couple had been married just two years and had an eight-month-old son, Amir. Rather, a high school teacher at a private institution affiliated with the pro-separatist group Jamaat-e-Islami, was taken from his home in Palhallan, in Kashmir’s Baramulla district, at 7:30 that night by the Indian Army’s 8th Battalion of the Rajputana Rifles.
Begum wasn’t home. She and Amir were at her parents’ house, a short drive away. It wasn’t until three days later that she learned from her father-in-law, who was visiting his son, that her husband had been forcibly taken.
It is unclear how many men like Rather were seized and disappeared in Kashmir. Activist groups put the number at 8,000 to 10,000. The State Human Rights Commission says the number is lower but did not respond to a months-long request to provide a figure. The women whom these disappeared men leave behind are referred to as “half-widows,” reflecting their uncertain status between wifehood and widowhood.
On the offensive: Indian policemen pursue protesters in Rawalpora, on the outskirts of Srinagar.
Following Rather’s disappearance, Begum, along with her father and father-in-law, went to the local base of the 8th Rajputana Rifles, seeking information about her husband. But they weren’t permitted to see him.
“We would go there in the morning; they would tell us he will be released in the evening,” Begum said. “We’d return in the evening, only to be told to come the next day. For three days we did this.” After that, she said, “we were told he escaped.”
Begum never returned to her marital home and even now, two decades later, rarely visits it. The house, she said, is a reminder of the life she might have led. She still lives with her parents, where she raised Amir, who recently graduated from university. She never told him what happened to his father. “He came to know on his own, from friends, from neighbors,” she said. “He didn’t ask me or his grandfather. We talk, but not about this. Why stress him with this?”
Begum and her father-in-law pursued her husband’s case through the police and the courts, demanding information about his whereabouts. An investigative report, dated June 6, 2000, by the State Human Rights Commission in Srinagar stated that Rather disappeared while in the army’s custody and that the young father was “not involved in any subversive activity” or “militancy-related affair.”
In August 2013 the state issued a death certificate for Rather without listing a cause of death. It simply said that he was missing and that he was 25 years old when he disappeared. Death certificates in cases like this, while not a declaration of state culpability, allow half-widows to seek state compensation of 100,000 Indian rupees ($1,535) and a civil service job for a member of their family.
For Begum the death certificate is neither resolution nor justice. She wants to know what happened to her husband. “They did not return his corpse, so I don’t know if he’s alive or not,” she said. She has focused her energy on raising her only child, but the trauma of her husband’s disappearance is always there. She said that whenever there are any clashes or protests, she doesn’t let Amir leave the house. “If he’s not in the house when something happens, I wait, and I wait, and I keep my eyes on the front gate, waiting for him to return.”
Women mourn the death of a young man in a decades-old conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives with no apparent prospect for resolution.
‘I AM ANGRY—ANGRY AT EVERYONE’
Farzan Sheikh, now 17, will never again be bothered by the streetlight that shines into his bedroom. After three surgeries on his right eye and four on his left, doctors say he has lost all vision in his right eye. With time and more surgeries, he might regain 40 to 50 percent vision in his left eye. “I recognize people by their voices. I just see shadows,” the young man said.
“He moves with the memory of the house,” his mother, Muzamil, said. “Every dream is crushed.” She worries about where they’ll find the money—up to $1,500—needed for the additional surgeries. Her husband runs a small store selling snacks and drinks from a room in their home. She works as a babysitter and a caretaker to make extra money.
“Sometimes I get so irritated I wish I could remove them myself,” Sheikh said of the pellets. “I feel pain—I want to remove them, but they’re deep inside.” It hurts less when he sleeps on his stomach and when he doesn’t think about his dashed dreams of becoming a professional cricketer.
“I lost my eyes for nothing,” he said. “I am angry—angry at everyone. I used to be angry even at the doctors. I am very angry at the policemen who shot me.”
If Sheikh partially regains his sight, he said, he’ll pick up a gun and join the insurgency.
“You will study!” his mother snapped, overhearing him.
“When somebody oppresses you, you have every right to fight back!”
“Whatever happened, happened,” Muzamil replied. “You have to recover first, regain some of your eyesight; then we’ll think beyond that. You have to study, and you have to choose a different path.”
Sheikh no longer attends school because it’s too hard to get to class. But he still keeps up with lessons that a younger friend reads aloud to him at home while Sheikh tries to memorize the details.
“It’s not one person who is my enemy,” Sheikh said. “It is everybody in the security forces.”
Rania Abouzeid is an award-winning print journalist and former New America fellow. Her first book, No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria, was published in March 2018. Follow her on Twitter: @Raniaab.
Cédric Gerbehaye, author of the book Congo in Limbo, is a Belgian documentary photographer and filmmaker currently based in Brussels. This is his first story for National Geographic. He is a member of MAPS. Follow him on Instagram: @cedricgerbehaye.