'Birdshot' Blinds Hundreds in Kashmir
Covid pandemic, frequent lockdowns worsen the plight of pellet victims
By: Majid Maqbool
Mohammad Ashraf Wani, from south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, was 25 when he was hit in the face by pellets fired by government forces outside his home during a protest following the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani in 2016.
Having undergone multiple corrective surgeries over the years, Ashraf, who is now 31 can see just a little but only from his left eye. Every time he looks in the mirror, he says he cannot recognize himself.
Ashraf is one of the thousands of Kashmiris who have been injured by Indian security forces who typically use 12-guage pump-action shotguns to fire cartridges filled with dozens or hundreds of the small metal pellets, sometimes called birdshot or dove shot. Initially concentrated in tight patterns when fired, they disperse to reach a wide radius, causing indiscriminate injuries, often to bystanders.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on the Indian government to stop using the pellets, which are classified as “non-lethal” crowd control although many have died when hit by them. Their misery has been compounded by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has kept them from seeing their doctors and stopped many from supporting themselves.
“Since last year we haven’t been able to visit our doctors regularly for treatment” because of the pandemic, Ashraf told Asia Sentinel. “ Eye surgeries of many pellet victims were also delayed due to the pandemic lockdown which has worsened our condition.”
Ashraf heads the Pellet Victims Welfare Trust (PVWT), an association of 1,432 members, all injured youth who have lost vision in one or both eyes.
Ashraf himself contracted Covid-19 in April, from which he recovered slowly after isolating himself at his home for weeks. Yet to be vaccinated, he says not even 3 percent of pellet victims in his association have been vaccinated so far. Their families have also been hesitant to take them to hospitals and vaccination centers. Many also complain of a change in the color of their eyes, Ashraf said, possibly a result of delayed treatment and eye surgeries.
Prone to psychological problems
Doctors who have treated pellet victims are concerned about how Covid-19 lockdowns and delayed treatment can cause more problems for pellet victims. Faisal Q Shah, a Kashmir ophthalmologist, says although pellet gun victims are as susceptible to Covid as other patients with accidental injuries, they’re still “vulnerable and need special attention since most of the pellet victims are young and have a long life ahead.”
The pandemic “would have certainly added to these problems and further affected their mental health,” the ophthalmologist said, adding that from his experience of treating pellet victims over the years, the common issue he has noticed is the severity of their injuries.
“Any injury that causes an opening in the eyeball is devastating and pellets, in particular, tend to do so owing to its velocity and density,” he said. No studies have come up with an effective treatment except to prevent injuries from happening.
Saleem Yousuf, registrar in the department of psychiatry in Government Medical College in the capital city Srinagar, has treated mental health issues of many victims in recent years. The psychiatrist says the pandemic, while significantly affecting their overall health, has in particular affected the mental health of pellet victims “due to lack of access to healthcare for their preexisting problems which already took a heavy toll on their mental health.”
In a 2018 unpublished study, Yousoff found that pellet victims with grievous injuries had “more psychiatric comorbidities than one with simple injuries.” Major depression was the most common psychiatric morbidity in pellet victims followed by anxiety disorders like PTSD, the study found.
“Depression and anxiety disorders are burning issues in pellet victims. More often than not what corners these pellets is their concern about earning their livelihood amid receding economical stability and job opportunities at present due to the ravaging pandemic,” he said.
Unable to work, dependent on family
Pellet victims, especially those who have been blinded in one or both eyes, are unable to work and earn a respectable livelihood for themselves. Plagued by mental health issues worsened by frequent lockdowns since the Indian government ended Kashmir’s autonomous status on August 5, 2019, they’re still struggling to get back to normal life. They also feel they’ve become a burden on their families.
“The main issues that pellet victims face and which has pushed them to the wall is their concern about earning their livelihood and living an independent life sans dependence on other members of family,” Yousuf said.
In its 2019 report “My World is Dark” on the victims of state violence and pellet-firing shotguns between 2016- 2018, the Kashmir based rights organization Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) found that mostly young people were targeted. Of the 23 testimonies recorded, 20 were aged 13 to 25.
The report collected about 300 testimonies of pellet victims injured during 2016 protests in which more than 80 civilians were killed and 4,500 injured by pellet-firing shotguns. Pellet injuries have “completely transformed the victims’ lives and destroyed their futures, rendering people unemployed and impoverished, in a helpless state.”
More than 352 civilians were partially or completely blinded in 2016, according to the report. “The figures for pellet-injured victims continue to be revised upwards as many do not report their injuries,” the report added.
Serious, permanent injuries
A 2017 Amnesty International briefing, “Losing sight in Kashmir” emphasized that the pellet gun weapons have a “high risk of causing serious and permanent injuries to the persons targeted as well as to others. These risks are virtually impossible to control. Pellet-firing shotguns which authorities say are intended to disperse stone-throwers have blinded, injured, and killed protestors, bystanders, journalists, medical professionals, and – there is some evidence to suggest – even security force personnel,” the report states.
The use of pellet-firing shotguns violates international human rights standards on the use of force, according to Amnesty International, quoting the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials that states that law enforcement officials may use force “only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.”
“India’s Home Ministry has suggested on several occasions that these weapons will be replaced, but those promises have not been kept,” Amnesty International said, adding that “official requests for information about the shotgun – which are manufactured by a Defense Ministry unit – have been turned down.”
Among the Kashmir victims who are part of Ashraf’s association are 32 females. Azra Jan, another resident of Rohmu village in Pulwama district, is one such victim. The 22-year-old Jan was hit in the face when a protest demonstration outside her home was dispersed by government forces on October 30, 2016. She was 18.
She couldn’t see anything. Her left eye was grievously injured by pellets.
Jan was picked up from the roadside and admitted in a Srinagar hospital for fifteen days. She underwent three eye surgeries during this period.
“After the third surgery, some 20 percent vision was regained in my left eye,” she says. Since 2016, she has been spending most of her time indoors. She dropped out of school, suffering from headaches. Once a bright student, she was unable to focus. Frequent hospital visits and treatment bills drained her family income, which was further affected by the lockdown.
Before the Covid lockdown was announced in March last year, her family would take her to a public hospital in Srinagar after every fortnight for her follow-up treatment and eye checkups. She hasn’t visited the hospital since March last year.
“I have not been able to get proper treatment or visit the hospital for regular treatment since last year,” says Jan. “The government and health department also doesn’t care about us.”
Jan is worried about her future. She hates darkness and often asks her doctors if she’ll be able to regain her full vision.
“If I close my right eye even now, I can’t see anything from my left eye,” she tells me, adding after an uncomfortable pause. “It’s a terrible feeling.”