SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir — “My life seems meaningless now. I don’t know what my future would be,” said Omar Farooq, a 23-year-old Kashmiri, who was hit by metal pellets in both eyes while he was trying to make his way to Beighpora village in Kashmir, where Indian Army personnel shot and killed Riyaz Naikoo, the 35-year-old commander of the pro-Pakistan militant group Hizbul Mujahideen, on 6 May.
Lying on a bed at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS) in Srinagar, Farooq narrated how he had set out as soon as he heard that the former mathematics teacher was locked in a gunbattle, but got caught in the violence that erupted when Indian paramilitary troopers stopped young men from reaching his village in Pulwama district.
Farooq, who studies arts in a government college in Kashmir, says he does not know whether he will recover his eyesight.
His father, Farooq Ahmad, who was wiping the blood oozing from his son’s right eye, said, “It has been three days since he received pellets on his face, but his eyelid is still bleeding.”
The Indian security establishment says that Naikoo had killed policemen, a village chief, migrant labourers, truck drivers, and civilians he considered informers, and he had successfully wielded social media to exhort other young men in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley to take up arms against India. He was on top of India’s most wanted list, but many young men saw him as a hero resisting the Indian state in a region ravaged by conflict, a flagrant disregard for human rights, and tens of thousands of deaths ever since the Pakistan-backed insurgency took root in 1989.
My life seems meaningless now. I don’t know what my future would be.
Naikoo’s death marks an important milestone for India’s security forces, but leaves yet another heart wrenching trail of devastation in its wake.
Farooq feels rather keenly that he might have to live with the tragic consequences of yet another encounter and its violent aftermath. He is not alone.
At least 16 young men were injured in the violent clashes that followed Naikoo’s death, Medical Superintendent of District Hospital in Pulwama, Mushtaq Ahmad Mir, said. Of the 16 who were injured in Pulwama, Mir said that 12 were hit by pellets in their eyes and four had gunshot injuries. An ophthalmologist at SMHS, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the hospital had treated 14 people with pellet injuries including the 12 from Pulwama.
The violent clashes that erupted after Naikoo was killed lasted for two days, forcingthe authorities to block mobile phone services and the internet in the middle of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
When the Indian army killed Burhan Wani, a former Hizbul Mujahideen commander who was even more popular than Naikoo, the violent clashes that erupted in 2016 lasted for months. According to the official count, 51 people were killed, and of the 9,042 people who were injured, 6,221 people suffered pellet-gun injuries — 782 of them in the eyes. Over 3,300 security personnel were injured, according to the Jammu and Kashmir Police.
Jehangir Yousuf Wani from Uthmulla village in Pulwama district was killed in the violence that erupted after Naikoo’s encounter. Burhan Bashir, another resident of Uthmulla, said that Wani was a 32-year-old salesman and a father to two children.
A class seven student who was spraying fertiliser in an apple orchard was killed a day earlier in north Kashmir when militants and security forces exchanged fire in Handwara in Kupwara district. Hazim Shafi Bhat, who was suffering from a physical disability, could not run away. Three paramilitary troopers also lost their lives on 5 May. This attack came after another firefight on 4 May in Handwara that claimed the lives of two army officers, two soldiers, a policeman, and two militants.
Citing Covid-19 and social distancing as reasons to not return the teenager’s body to his family, the J&K Police reportedly buried Hazim Shafi Bhat in a graveyard for unidentified militants in Baramulla district, 35 kilometers from his village.
At least 10 civilians, 25 security forces personnel and 78 militants had been killed in J&K in 2020, till 8 May, according to the South Asian Terrorism Portal, run by the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi.
As his face dissolved in tears, Ahmad, Farooq’s father, who finds work as a labourer, said, “What will I do now? I am neither a government employee nor a big farmer who can afford better treatment for his son. I am a poor man.”
HuffPost India reached out to Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) in Pulwama Ashish Kumar Mishra about the pellet gun injuries and Wani’s death in the aftermath of Naikoo’s encounter, but he refused to comment. HuffPost India has also reached out to the SSP in Shopian Amritpal Singh. The story will be updated if he responds.
It has been three days since he received pellets on his face, but his eyelid is still bleeding.
‘Burning in pain’
As word spread that Naikoo was trapped in his village and locked in a firefight with the Indian army, young men from nearby villages in Pulwama district set out to see the site of the encounter and his body.
Farooq, who lives in Liter in Pulwama, 13 kilometres from Naikoo’s village, said that he and a friend set out on foot at around one in the afternoon and had walked for two hours before they encountered the Indian security forces at Chakora village, three kilometres from their destination.
While the young men threw stones, Farooq said the troopers responded with pellets, tear gas and live ammunition.
“Some of the boys started throwing stones on them, and within no time something hot struck my face and I fell down,” he said. “I gained consciousness in the ambulance and my eyes were burning in pain. I was not able to open my eyes. Everything was dark.”
The ophthalmologist at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS), who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Farooq’s eyes had sustained grave injuries, and it would take two to three weeks before any assessment could be made about him regaining his eyesight.
The ophthalmologist said that such grave injuries required multiple surgeries, and few recover their eyesight.
“They either lose their partial light or become blind because it is a delicate organ and the damage caused by the pellets affects it badly,” he said.
Trail of devastation
Recovering at the Bone and Joint Hospital in Kashmir, Asir Nabi Bhat, a 26-year-old from Pulwama district, said he was hit by a bullet on his right thigh when young men clashed with security forces near Bargam town, six kilometres from Naikoo’s village.
Bhat, a baker, said, “It was difficult to resist not seeing his face.”
Showkat Ahmad Beigh, who was admitted to the SMHS after a pellet hit his left eye, said that he too had wanted a glimpse of Naikoo.
The 25-year-old engineering student said that he was hit when young men clashed with security forces near his own Takun village, three kilometres from Naikoo’s village.
“We came to know that the encounter had ended and knew that the army would not hand over the body of Riyaz Naikoo for the funeral due to the current pandemic,” said Beigh.“We were going just to get a glimpse of his face.”
Lying next to Beigh’s bed at SMHS was 14-year-old Sahil Mukhtar who said that he was at home in Beighpora, Naikoo’s village, and all he did was look out of the window when a pellet hit his left eye.
“I thought my left eye was hit with a bullet. I screamed for help and fell unconscious,” recalls Mukhtar.
Mukhtar’s uncle, Manzoor Ahmad Dar, who was taking care of him in Srinagar, said the suspension of mobile services had made it impossible for him to reach Manzoor’s parents for money to buy medicines, and he ended up promising to pay the medical store owner when a semblance of normalcy returned to the Valley.
Mukhtar, who studies in class eight, is terrified of losing sight in his left eye.
“I’m a student and I’m afraid that losing my eyesight would cost me my studies. I don’t want to live with this disability. I am the only son of my parents and if they see me in this condition, they would die,” he said.
I’m a student and I’m afraid that losing my eyesight would cost me my studies.