Srinagar: Three days after the killing of popular militant commander Burhan Wani sparked mass unrest in Kashmir, death toll is constantly rising and hundreds of injured are being treated in various hospitals.
Most of the civilians injured (one number puts the number at around 500) have either been hit by live ammunition like bullets and pellets fired by the government forces. At least fifty of the injured who have received serious facial injuries by pellets, according to doctors, may lose their eyesight, fully or partially.
Cries of patients writhing with pain can be heard from Ward 7 and 8 of the SMHS Hospital,Srinagar where most of the pellet gun victims have been hospitalized. Most of the patients have their faces bandaged.
Doctors at the hospital said the multiple tiny pellets have disfigured faces of at least 48 persons, almost all of them in their teens, and the chances of their eyesight recovery were bleak
“There is every chance that they may not be able to see again,” prominent medico and Doctors Association of Kashmir President, Dr Nisar-ul-Hassan told Kashmir Observer team which visited the hospital today.
“The biggest tragedy is that surgical intervention in such cases is of little help as there are multiple tiny perforations in the body which are too difficult to be treated,” said a senior surgeon who conducted 14 surgeries since July 9, the date when protests erupted.
The use of pellet guns are part of the range of riot control gear described as “non-lethal weapons”. But since their deployment in Kashmir in 2010, scores of youth — most of them teenagers — have lost their eye-sight in one or both the eyes. Hundreds of others have been injured and some have even been killed.
Due to their small size, it is difficult to remove all the pellets from the body. And the remaining pellets in the body, the doctors say, can deviate and damage internal organs. But it is the toll in terms of the eye-sight of the scores of the youth that has been the most horrifying.
According to Dr. Vipan Kumar Vig, one of the senior doctors at Dr. Sohan Singh Hospital, Chandigarh, the facility receives on an average 25 patients a month from Kashmir in times of trouble in the state.
Dr Vipin conducted 25 surgeries of pellet cases in 2015 alone. “I reckon around 50 boys from Kashmir treated at our hospital alone would have lost their sight over the past five years. The number could be even bigger as patients go to other places too,” Dr. Vig was quoted by Tehelka magazine as saying in a recent issue. “The situation is very, very grave. I fully empathise with these boys and the people of Kashmir”, Dr Vipin said.
Says Dr. Vipan: “Once you have a pellet in the eye, the eye is never the same again. It is a frontal kind of attack. The pellet is worse than any other eye injury, for example, a foreign body in the eye or any other flying object into the eye”.
The reason for this, Dr. Vij says, is that the pellets are high-velocity projectiles. They have “a flat, round, hollow or pointed tip, followed by a taper to a thin waist”.
Flying through the air at high speeds, they break apart and scatter, raising the number of people they hit in the crowd. What is more, the pellets not only pierce the eye but also rotate, crushing the tissues in the process.
“They pass through the eye and go behind the eyeball and settle themselves between the tissues. It can be the nerve or the central part of the eye which we call macula.,” says Dr. Vig. “So many of the youth who are hit have very bad prognosis after the treatment”.
A senior doctor at SMHS compared the eye to a “water-ball” which bursts once hit by a pellet. “Pellet often breaks into multiple pieces in the air. And when fired, they hit the ground, walls and ricochet into the eyes and the other parts of the bodies of the people nearby. Or they hit directly,” the doctors said, not wishing to be named as he was not authorized to talk to the press.
The debate over the use of Pellet Guns for crowd control has been raging here since 2010. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who holds Home Department portfolio also, told the legislative Assembly on July 1, that, “No person was killed or rendered blind on account of use of pellet guns in law and order disturbances during the period from 2008 to 2014.
Her statement was however strongly countered by rights groups.
Reacting to her statement, prominent human rights activist and head of Kashmir Rights Monitoring Centre, Mannan Bukhari, said that ‘such blatant lies of the CM is an attempt to obfuscate the truth and confuse the public opinion locally and internationally.’
Bukhari, who is also the author of the book “Kashmir Scars Of Pellet Gun” said that before issuing such statements Mehbooba should at least have gone through the official figures and other relevant reports provided under RTI act by the various Hospitals and relevant institutions of the Valley.
The figures for the last year at Srinagar’s two major hospitals — SMHS and SKIMS Medical College, Bemina — once again bring this grim reality home. Around 38 patients hit by pellet guns were admitted to the Department of Ophthalmology of SMHS from October 2014 to November 2015.
Around 32 of them had suffered serious ocular injuries and had to undergo surgery at the hospital. Since they didn’t return for a follow-up, it is not known how many lost their eyesight.
Similarly, from January 2015 to December 2015, nine patients were admitted to the eye ward of the SKIMS hospital at Bemina. Out of them, two lost sight in both eyes, three in one eye and one recovered partial eyesight.
Doctors at the SMHS put the number of eye injuries due to pellets at 500 since 2010 when the weapons were first introduced during the five-month long unrest in the Valley.
Around 45 youth had lost their eyesight in one or both eyes at SMHS in the year, a study by the hospital revealed.
“We conducted this study through the five-month-long 2010 unrest,” Dr. Manzoor Ahmad Kang, the then head of the Department of Ophthalmology at the hospital had told a news magazine at the time, adding that the figure didn’t include the injured admitted to other hospitals in the Valley.
Activist Bukhari said on March 2013 and Feb 2014, the PDP who were then in opposition walked out of the Assembly to protest against the use of Pellet guns on protestors and even criticised the government over the use of “Harmful Weapons on Public”.
“The use of pellets by the security personnel while dealing with the protesters is adversely affecting People’s health. People are being injured and killed by the pellet Guns,” he said while “reminding the PDP President Mehbooba Mufti of what she had said.
The non-lethal weapons were first used in the middle of 2010 unrest when already around 50 youth had been killed in the firing on protesters. The then chief minister Omar Abdullah wrote to the Centre for supplying such weapons to the police. “At the request of Omar, the Ordnance factory at Jabalpur got into act quickly and produced such rifles which were handed over recently to the state police for putting them to use in mob control activities,” a PTI report of that year states.
On 14 August 2010, the pump action rifle was used for the first time at Seelo Sopore on a 3,000 strong mob. Few people received injuries that time. But soon while killings through lethal weapons continued — another 70 died in the following three months — the non-lethal weapons blinded scores of others.
The following year, J&K went for a major non-lethal weapons upgrade to tackle recurrent protests in the state. The list is long: vehicle – mounted tear-smoke devices, blast dispersal cartridges and stun-lac grenades. The police also procured body protectors, polycarbonate shields, polycarbonate sticks, helmets and visors, bulletproof bunkers, pump action guns, water cannons, anti-riot rifles, and rubber and plastic pellets. The new weaponry also includes dye-maker grenades and colored water canons.
However, police have mostly used pellet guns and pepper spray. But of all the other weapons, pellet guns have wrought havoc. Now hundreds of youth carry pellets in their body, many of them developing crippling disabilities because of them.