Published On: Wed, Dec 13th, 2017

Kashmir conflict: Pellet injuries leave boys in India struggling to adapt to blindness

Story by Annie Gowen

It was months before Faisal Ahmed Dar finally stepped back on the cricket field.

He had been his team’s top batter. But Faisal, 16, was recovering from a pellet wound that robbed him of 93 percent of sight in his left eye. As he healed, playing was out of the question.

One July evening, he decided to try. His teammates were on the dusty school field, as always. The wobbly wooden wickets had been set up, as always. The sun was turning the clouds behind the Himalayas a rosy pink.

He slowly raised the bat.

It has been well over a year since more than 70 died and thousands of others were injured in anti-government protests in Indian-administered Kashmir — where Muslims have long fought for independence from India.

During the conflict, India’s security forces used 12-gauge shotguns loaded with pellet cartridges for crowd control — spraying mobs with millions of 2-millimeter metal pellets. Ultimately, more than 6,000 were injured, including more than 1,100 with permanent eye damage. A representative to the United Nations from Pakistan called it “the first mass blinding in human history.”

Faisal is just one victim in the latest bloody chapter in the strife-ridden, Muslim-majority territory that has been a source of dispute between India and Pakistan for decades. Many fear that deepening anger against Indian security forces could prompt more young men to join Kashmir’s small but dangerous militancy.

In Karimabad — a village of 3,500 apple growers and farmers whose residents have long been sympathetic to militants — nearly a dozen young men have suffered permanent eye damage from pellets, including five from Faisal’s cricket team. The graffiti on a nearby overpass tells the story: “Stop Blinding Us.”

The pitch was slow and gentle. Faisal swung, expecting to feel the familiar “thwack” of the ball hitting the sweet spot of the bat. But the ball hit the wicket and bounced away. Nearly blind in his left eye, Faisal didn’t see the ball. His teammates froze in place, gazing at him sorrowfully. He turned away so they wouldn’t see him cry.

Faisal tries to play cricket with friends at a nearby school playground this autumn. During the summer of 2016, he lost 93 percent of the vision in his left eye. (Showkat Nanda for The Washington Post)

Faisal, who is 16, adjusts his skull cap as his friends play cricket nearby. He believes he will never play serious cricket again. (Showkat Nanda for The Washington Post)

Faisal, an avid cricketer in Karimabad, Indian-administered Kashmir, was not able to play after he lost vision in his left eye because he was hit with a metal pellet fired by security forces. (Showkat Nanda for The Washington Post)

Someone was shaking Faisal awake. The teen emerged from sleep to see his mother next to him, screaming, “The village is going to be destroyed!”

Accounts from villagers, Faisal and his family of that summer morning in 2016 depict a chaotic scene.

Security forces had circled the village with armored vehicles hoping to ferret out militants. The men searched house to house, breaking windows, shooting guns in the air and launching tear gas that filled the air with smoke.

Residents pelted them ferociously with stones — probably helping the militants escape, police said. Under siege, the security forces had returned fire with pellets as a “last resort,” said Mohammad Aslam, superintendent of police.

A neighbor appeared and said that Faisal’s older brother, Aamir, 20, had been picked up for throwing stones. Faisal ran in time to see a smear of blood on the road and his brother being hauled off in a police van.

This road leads to where Faisal was shot with pellets. Witnesses described the scene that summer in 2016 as chaotic. (Showkat Nanda for The Washington Post)

Desperate, he ran after it, hoping he could persuade police to let his brother go. He was stopped by a hail of pellets, stinging his arms, torso and legs. And then, in his left eye, nothingness.

His first thought, Faisal recalled, was the single word “khatam” — it’s over. I’m gone.

His legs gave out, and he crumpled to the ground bleeding. A cousin rushed to help. Soon Faisal was on a metal cot in the operating room of the state’s government hospital. Out of his good eye, he could see other pellet victims being stitched up around him, like an operating theater in a war. The doctor numbed his eye and sutured the wound.

“Am I going to see again?” Faisal asked.

Sure, the doctor said jovially, in about two to three months. But Faisal knew he did not mean it.

Several weeks earlier, Indian forces had killed Burhan Wani, the operational commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist group. His death set off months of protests on the Indian side of Kashmir, which sits partly in India, partly in Pakistan.

Wani, 22, son of a school principal, made his name on social media, posing with assault rifles on dozens of Facebook fan pages that chronicled his every move. Yet it was a deadly business: Wani commanded a group that had killed more than 300 people, including 100 police officers, over the last decade, according to one estimate, and he had called for attacks on police convoys and military housing.

His funeral on July 9, 2016, drew thousands. In Karimabad, protests went on for days. Security forces largely kept their distance. Karimabad is so dangerous that police enter it only in moments of “urgent need,” Aslam said.

Nearly two dozen young men have left the village to join the militancy since 1990, elders say, and some returned as corpses. The bloody insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir gave way to sporadic violence the following decade, with Indian paramilitary forces and state police first using pellet cartridges in 2010.

Pellet cartridges are so dangerous many countries have banned them, and they are not used widely in India outside Kashmir. But the scale of the protests following Wani’s death triggered a security and public health crisis, with poorly trained officers firing into crowds at close range. Along with the injured, at least 14 people died from pellet injuries, according to Amnesty International’s September report “Losing Sight in Kashmir.”

After two surgeries, Faisal stayed inside. His friends crept up the mud-and-brick staircase to sit in his room and console him. At night he was restless, unable to sleep. During the day, he snapped at his mother when she called him to supper or when she chided him to stop staring at his phone because he was hurting his eyes. Even unrolling the small quilt for bed was a chore. “It’s hard to watch,” said Aamir, a scarf weaver.

Last December, he and his uncle traveled to Dr. Daljit Singh Eye Hospital in another state to see a specialist. Although he retained sight in his right eye, he has lost depth perception and suffers from blurred vision and headaches. Rehabilitation facilities are nonexistent, and his family can’t afford a good pair of glasses.

The doctor, Indu Singh, a retina specialist and eye surgeon, said she thought another surgery might help. Then, a few weeks later, more good news: Aamir was released from custody, the charges of stone-pelting dropped for lack of evidence.

Singh said she has been treating pellet patients from Kashmir for more than 15 years, long before security forces admitted to using them.

“I don’t know why all this is happening, why the situation is so bad,” she said. “I’m not a politician. I just know that human beings are being damaged.”

In May, Faisal went back to school, walking cautiously through the hallway of the government secondary school, its green walls emblazoned with graffiti of guns.

Although it cheered him to see his classmates, he grew despondent. He was behind, and it was difficult for him to make out many of the Urdu words on the whiteboard. His friends whispered to him what the lessons said.

Faisal with his cousin Sajid at his home in Karimabad in Pulwama. Sajid rushed Faisal to the hospital on a motor bike after he was hit in the eye. (Showkat Nanda for The Washongton Post)

“He is a completely changed person,” said Waseem Shameem Bhat, 17. “He has become so handicapped, he can’t even express his emotion if he gets angry. He can’t even marry. He’ll have to marry a girl who is also blind.”

State officials say assistance programs for the pellet victims will be launched, and they recently awarded a small group of them government jobs. So far, the state has provided financial assistance to 22 victims, about $3,000 to those blinded in both eyes and $1,500 to those blinded in one eye. Faisal’s family has not received any assistance.

Not long after the first day of school, Faisal and a friend drove about half an hour to see Wani’s grave. Wani has become a cult hero since his death, and supplicants come to the open field where he is buried to take handfuls of soil, believing it has magical powers. Faisal felt a “strong urge” to see the place.

He has been drawn to militants since his injury and, like his friends, has saved pictures of Wani and others on his cellphone.

“A militant is a kind of shield for the violations the security forces can unleash on women and children,” Faisal said. “If there are 1,000 teenagers in a village, 990 of them would want to become a militant.”

In January, India’s Supreme Court is expected to address a special petition filed by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association challenging the use of pellets. But for now, the government of India has said security forces will continue to use them if other measures such as chili shells and tear gas fail to disperse rioters. The main government hospital continues to see several pellet injuries a week.

“We are very sensitive about the use of force,” said S.N. Shrivastava, special director general for India’s paramilitary force in Kashmir. “The whole purpose is to cause minimum damage to the protesters.”

Security forces are experimenting with a number of crowd-control measures that would be less harmful, Shrivastava said, and they have added deflectors to guns to control the angle of the pellet dispersal, away from the eyes.

On a recent sunny day, Faisal climbed the hill to the small brick mosque with green arched windows, and unrolled his prayer mat. He prayed as he always does, he said: “God, you are the doctor of doctors. Please help me recover.” But he isn’t sure what will happen, and the family can’t afford the operation the doctor suggested.

Faisal prays at the local mosque. (Showkat Nanda for The Washington Post)

Later he joined his old cricket teammates playing a pickup match in the schoolyard. They called him to join in, but he shook his head and sat on the sidelines. He swapped glasses with another pellet victim, Adil Riyaz Bhat, 20, who also can no longer play. When an errant ball came his way, he flinched.

The match wasn’t over, but Faisal decided to leave early. These days, with his hampered vision, it’s hard for him to be out after dark.

“My life is over,” he said, before heading home.

Ishfaq Naseem contributed to this report.

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