Bramulla: When agitated men and women filled the streets of Kashmir in 2016, Shakeela had different worries. A divorcee, who lives at her brother’s home at Fatehgarh village in this north Kashmir district, she was consumed by the thoughts of her five-year-old son’s future.
Then one day, in September, news broke that government forces had raided the neighbouring Hewan village where a protest rally was planned. Chashes ensued as villagers resisted the raid and the forces fired tear smoke and pellet guns at people. The mother’s instinct took over, she looked aound the house for her son, and ran towards Hewan fearing that her five-year-old son, Faheem, might have joined the protest.
A shower of pellets met Shakeela midway between Fatehgarh and Hewan, tearing through the tissue in her eyes and face, and left her in a pool of blood. Government forces, she said, were firing at people, trying to prevent them from reaching Hewan. No one asked Shakeela her purpose; the response of the troopers was routine.
Shakeela says she felt a darkness take her over as she passed out. “When I woke up, I was in an ambulance. I heard my brother talking to someone – the person said ‘she may be blinded completely; she has pellet injuries in both her eyes’.”
Among the thousands injured during the 2016 uprising, Shakeela Begam of Fathegrah may figure as just another story. As violence consumes lives of young men and women, her life altering injuries appear comparatively insignificant. But the scars of her pain and suffering will be passed through generations in her family.
More than 1100 people were left injured in their eyes by pellet guns fired at civilian protests by government forces in 2016. Records consolidated by the SMHS Hospital and SKIMS Bemina suggest that at least 50 of them were injured in both eyes, leaving them visually impaired for life. In an article in The Guardian, noted author Mirza Waheed termed the pellet gun firing on civilians as a mass blinding campaign.
The plight of the pellet victims was not lost on Shakeela. She says she had been hearing stories of young boys and girls shot in their faces and losing eye sight. But on September 09, the concern for her son’s life drove her out.
“Around noon, we heard that forces raided Hewan village and there were clashes,” Shakeela recalls. “I started looking for Faheem,” Someone told her that he was on way to Hewan. Shakeela panicked.
Faheem’s vision is weak since birth, she thought. “I rushed to bring him back, but on way I saw some forces personnel firing pellets, one among them fired a pellet gun at me.”
Shakeela says she began to scream when she regained conscience in the ambulance and heard the man tell her brother about her loss of vision. “I was inconsolable. My brother tried to tell me that I will be treated at the hospital, but I would not stop screaming. Till I suddenly remembered Faheem,” she says.
As her brother, Farooq Sheikh, told Shakeela that her son was safe, she calmed down. The assurance of her son’s safety, she says, comforted her in her most desperate moment.
But regaining vision was not going to be easy. “I visited several hospitals from Srinagar to Amritsar over the next few months, but I could not see again. Our money was wasted. I lost vision in my left eye completely while my right eye has retained about 50 percent of vision.”
As Shakeela was struggling to regain her full vision, Faheem came to visit her in the hospital one day. “He was perplexed to see my eyes bandaged. He asked ‘why I had bandages?’ I did not know how to explain my condition to him,” she says. “I could not see him either, I just touched his face and held him close.”
Doctors told Shakeela that she needed several surgeries to regain full vision, but she could not afford them. “I have no money for medicines and surgeries now,” she says as tears swell in her eyes.
Shakeela, now in her early thirties, was divorced in December 2015. When she came to live with her brother, she says that her husband had left her with no alimony.
“I have lived with my brother since,” Shakeela says. “He takes care of me – pays for my son’s school and my healthcare.” As a single parent, Shakeela knew that she would have to contribute by helping in the house. “I cooked, cleaned and took care of people in the house. I could not afford to be a burden in the household,” she says. “But I can’t do that anymore.”
The several treatments that Shakeela received in Srinagar and other hospitals in India had failed to help her recover. Yet, Shakeela tried to be the homemaker she was before pellets hit her. But she failed at everything she used to be an expert at.
“I am half blind. I can’t cook anymore. Oil and chilly hurt my eyes,” Shakeela says. There are other limitations she lives with. “I can’t dial accurate phone number, children help me. I can walk on the roads, but not in low light.”
But Shakeela’s most painful moment are her interactions with her son. Faheem, she says, has caught on to the idea that his mother is blinded. “Who blinded you mummy?” he asks Shakeela. There is no answer that Shakeela can satisfy the child’s curiosity with. She lets it be, she says, concealing a deep anguish – “Like him, I can’t see clearly anymore. In my mind, I have preserved the image of Faheem from the morning of September 9. That is very clear, everything else is very blurred.”