Around 8 pm on the evening of 11 July 2016, three days after the killing of militant Burhan Wani, 14-year-old Insha Mushtaq Lone was peering out from a window on the ground floor of her house in Sedow village of south Kashmir's Shopian district, where fresh protests had broken out. She was hit by pellets fired close to the room window facing the street. She fell down, her three front teeth broke on impact, and there was blood all over her face. She couldn't see anything. The light had gone out of her eyes.
Back home now after undergoing treatment for over two months in New Delhi and Mumbai, where she underwent multiple corrective surgeries in her eyes, Insha is still not able to see anything. Her world has turned dark. She does not like staying at her home for long.
"She hates it here now," says her father, Mushtaq Ahmad Lone, a truck driver who can't work much after he injured his leg in an accident a few years ago. "She has been staying at her aunt's home in another village." She doesn't want to come back anytime soon.
Insha was admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, for specialised treatment for over a month and also operated in a Mumbai hospital where she stayed for a month. "The doctors said it will take time for her to regain some of her vision despite undergoing so many surgeries," says Lone. "I hope that eventually comes true, as she often asks us when she can see again."
Insha's fate has become symbolic of the plight of hundreds of pellet victims in Kashmir. These "non-lethal" pellet shotguns, used by the police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) to quell street protests in the past four months, have blinded hundreds of youth, many of the victims being teenagers and some even children. The doctors and ophthalmologists treating these victims in hospitals have termed the grievous eye injuries caused by the pellets an "epidemic of blindness".
According to official records in Srinagar hospitals, in over 100 days of the uprising, pellet shotguns have reportedly hit about 1,178 eyes in Kashmir. During this period, 991 people with pellet injuries in the eyes were admitted at SMHS Hospital in the city and 135 people with pellet eye injuries were treated at SKIMS Medical College Hospital in Bemina, Srinagar.
The doctors and ophthalmologists treating these victims in hospitals have termed the grievous eye injuries caused by the pellets an "epidemic of blindness".
As per local newspaper reports, the total number of pellet victims admitted at various Srinagar hospitals in the past four months stands at 1,126; out of them 52 had both their eyes injured by pellets. Hundreds of women also suffered from pellet injuries in the past four months, with about 18, including young girls, having pellet injuries in their eyes, blinding them in one or both eyes.
Following widespread criticism of the indiscriminate use of pellet guns in Kashmir, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh in a press conference in Srinagar on 25 August had assured that pellet guns would be phased out and in its place an "alternative" would be provided to the forces "within 3-4 days".
But the use of pellet guns continued. On 30 October, three girls — 13-year-old Ifrah Jan, 18-year-old Afroza and 20-year-old Shabroza — from Rohmoo in South Kashmir's Pulwama district became the latest victims of pellet guns after they were hit in their eyes.
At her aunt's place in Dangerpora Shopian, Insha slowly walks out into the warm November sunshine, wearing black shades, her hands held by her cousin to show her the way. "Now I am getting used to the darkness surrounding me," she says, adding that she has to put drops in her eye four times a day.
"I wake up before sunrise," she says about her struggle to lead a normal life. "I am unable to sleep well."
"I can't make out if it's day or night time; it's all the same to me," she goes on. "When I'm taken out in the sunlight during the day, I feel some faint light in my left eye and nothing in my right eye."
Insha is now dependent on others for every minor chore. She can't eat without assistance; she can't go to the bathroom without help. She needs help while putting on clothes. "I always need help now," she says, her voice steeped with disappointment. "I don't like it," she adds after a pause.
A ninth standard student at a local school, Insha was a punctual and never liked to miss out on her classes. Now her books are lying in her bag kept in one corner of her room. The last entry in one of her notebooks in marked on 5 July, six days before she was blinded by pellets at her home.
Sometimes, her parents say, she asks for her school bag, brings out the books and rubs them over to feel them with her hands. Then she asks her parents to put them back inside.
"She loved school and she was good in her studies," says her mother, her eyes brimming with tears as she opens her school bag to show her books. "She wanted to become a doctor."
Insha often asks her parents about attending her school again. She asks how she can appear for the exams. She doesn't want to miss an academic year.
"I miss my school and my friends and my classmates," she says, as he remembers coming home from school, finishing her homework first, before heading out to play for some time with her cousins. She badly misses those days. "I wish I could go to school again, like I used to in the past."
Insha recalls telling the CM, How can you donate your eyes for me? "She can't and I think she was lying. I didn't believe her," she says. "I told her all I want is to see again."
When her friends recently came over to see her, she couldn't see them. She felt sad but she recognised them — from their voices, she adds. She wishes to see her friends again and go back to school.
When she was admitted at AIIMS for treatment, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti came to see her in the hospital one day. "She said she can do anything for me," says Insha, "that she can even give her eyes for me to regain my vision." But Insha recalls telling the CM, How can you donate your eyes for me? "She can't and I think she was lying. I didn't believe her," she says. "I told her all I want is to see again."
Earlier, Insha wanted to become a doctor, but now she doesn't know what she will become or what will become of her. "Maybe I can be an engineer now," she says. "Allah knows!"
Ask her what she misses the most, apart from going to school and meeting her classmates and friends every day. "Panun gash," she retorts, turning sombre. "My vision."
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