Eighteen-year-old Mohammad Yasin lies on a hospital bed, his vision smeared with a white haze. He is not sure if he will ever see properly again.
All 72 beds in the ophthalmology ward of Srinagar’s SMHS hospital, where Yasin is recovering, are occupied — some by two patients. The patients are mostly young, many of them minors, including a 12-year-old girl. The hospital administration had to vacate half of the adjoining medicine ward to accommodate the rush of youths with injuries to their eyes, sustained in protests in the wake of Burhan Wani’s killing.
“We have already operated on 92 patients. Every hour, more young men arrive with pellet injuries to the eyes. We are overburdened,” said Dr Sajjad Khanday, an ophthalmologist.
He said the injuries are so severe that the damage is almost always permanent. “In most cases, the first people to speak to patients are policemen in plainclothes. They record their antecedents even before we can examine them,” he said. “We had to shut our operation theatre in the trauma unit because it was getting difficult to stop people from entering.”
Though pellet guns have been regularly used to quell protests in Kashmir since 2010, when the state police introduced them as “non-lethal weapon”, their use has increased over the years. The use of pellet guns in the current clashes, doctors said, is “unprecedented”.
The pellets, sources said, come in grades ranging from 5 to 12, depending on damage, range and speed; 5 being the most damaging. Sources said number 9 is preferred to control crowds but police often use the stronger number 6 or number 7 in villages.
“These pellets don’t kill you, which means there isn’t any body count, so police are fine with it. But once a young man loses one or both of his eyes, it is worse than death,” Khanday said. “Not just his life, his entire family is destroyed. We have seen families take their children to places like Chennai in the hope that vision can be restored. It takes years for a family to accept the fate. There are very few cases where intervention helps after a pellet has pierced the eye.”
Inside Ward 8, Yasin, a resident of Chursoo village, said he had gone to Tral on Saturday to participate in Burhan’s funeral. He was returning home when policemen fired pellets at a group of about 20 boys. “I was the only one hit. I remember something burning entering my eye. I felt an excruciating pain,” he said. “I walked many miles to reach Awantipora hospital. The doctors there told me they cannot help.”
He said he saw an ambulance van heading to Pampore and boarded it. Then he hopped into another ambulance which took him to Srinagar. “I have two pellets in my right eye. My family doesn’t know what has happened to me. I haven’t been able to reach them on the phone.”
An older boy, recovering on the same bed, was hit by a pellet on the left eye. Distributing biscuits to others in the ward, he said, “I can’t see a thing from my left eye. We were protesting. We were shouting slogans. They (the police) came and fired pellets.”
He then unbuttoned his shirt and said, “Look at the injury marks on my chest.”
Doctors said even patients who can see right now sometimes complain of vision loss after a few weeks. “These pellets are devastating for the eyes. They make a hole and destroy the tissue. We can do nothing to help. There are 10 such cases today,” Khanday said.
One patient, hit by a pellet on the right eye during a protest in Parimpora on Monday, said his only consolation is that “I can still see with one eye”. “I am very angry. They want us blinded for life. Is this the way to treat people who are seeking their rights?” he said.
Khanday said a lot of cases go unreported. “It took one patient two days to come from Achabal (south Kashmir) to the hospital. There are many who are not able to make it here,” he said. “One young man lost an eye to a pellet earlier. The healthy eye was hit by a pellet today.”
Another senior doctor at SMHS hospital who did not wish to be named said, “We have never seen anything of this magnitude. Everyone who came here has pellet wounds above the chest.”
A senior police officer said that while they are aware of devastating effects of such eye injuries, they don’t have an option. “The use of pellet guns to control protests is preferred to the use of live ammunition. Deaths attract a lot of attention. Plus there is a view that when a protester is hit with a pellet in the eye, it becomes a deterrent. I don’t agree with this, but that is what is happening,” the officer said.