Thursday, 20 February, 2020
Occupied Kashmir's youngest pellet gun victim could lose complete sight

Occupied Kashmir's youngest pellet gun victim could lose complete sight
Rifat Fareed

Hiba Nisar is a toddler determined to play with her tricycle as her mother, Mursala Jan, struggles to keep the child from racing out onto the lawn.

Any contact with dust could cause an infection to her eye. She can't talk much yet, but regularly fusses and points her finger to where the pain is.

Doctors have warned that she may have permanently lost vision in her right eye.

On November 23, the 18-month-old's eye was ruptured by pellets fired by the Indian forces inside her home at Kapran, a village in the Shopian district in occupied Kashmir.

She was in her mother's arms when the volley of pellets hit her.

In recent years, more than 6,000 people, mostly teenagers, have lost their eyesight fully or partially after being struck by the pellets, which are fired from iron shotguns used by the forces to control demonstrations in Kashmir.

Hiba is the latest and youngest victim, her injury has stirred debate over the use of force.

"There was heavy tear [gas] outside and we all felt choked. The kids started vomiting and were struggling to breathe," 30-year-old Mursala Jan said at her home in Shopian. 

Fearing her children might venture out, Mursala Jan tried to keep them inside.

"When I saw them vomiting, with their eyes turning red, I opened the door of the room and took them towards the corridor. We were in the corridor when the pellets came towards us. I pushed my son aside and he fell down. I tried to shield Hiba with my hands but the pellets had already turned her face bloody. 

"I went out and shouted. A group of young boys saw her and took her to the hospital on the bike in another district. It was after a while that I was able to reach the hospital from where she was referred to the main city of Srinagar." 

During a gunfight between the freedom fighters and Indian forces that took place in Kapran village that day, six fighters and a civilian were killed, triggering massive clashes.

The residential house where the gun battle took place is near Hiba's home.

Mursala Jan says her daughter is too young to comprehend the darkness that has befallen her but has not slept well since the incident.

"I don't know what her future will be like. What will she do with darkness in the world? She is too young to even tell me where it hurts. She just points her finger to her eye. She refuses to close her eye even once.

"Maybe it hurts her too much when she closes her eye."

Hiba's few words include "biscuit", "mama", and "eye".

"I wish that the pellets had hit me instead of her. It has taken away my peace to see my little girl suffering. How would she come in terms with her disability for life, if she does not gain her sight completely?" said Mursala Jan.

"These things will haunt her in future and they have started haunting me now. No one cares about it, my child is a number, among thousands of others who have lost their light because of pellets."

It is not the first time the family has suffered because of pellet guns.

Hiba's teenage cousin, Insha Mushtaq, was hit during anti-India uprising in 2016 in Kashmir. She was blinded two days after Burhan Wani, a young commander, was killed.

Wani's death led to a five-month protest, in which at least 100 civilians were killed and thousands were wounded. 

Hiba's mother says there were dozens of other victims in the ophthalmology ward when her daughter was undergoing the first surgery.

"She cried for the whole night," said Mursala Jan, adding that a second surgery which should determine whether or not Hiba's sight can be restored is scheduled for December 11.

Amnesty International says the weapons that cause these injuries are "dangerous" and violate international standards on the use of force.

"Authorities claim the pellet shotgun is not lethal, but the injuries and deaths caused by this cruel weapon bear testimony to how dangerous, inaccurate and indiscriminate it is," the rights group has said.

The guns were introduced in the disputed territory in 2010.

Their use has blinded hundreds and killed at least 14 people since July 2016, according to Amnesty International.  

In a media interview, doctor Saleem Tak, medical superintendent at Srinagar’s SMHS Hospital, did not rule out the possibility that Hiba could lose her eyesight.

"She has suffered corneal perforating injury, an anomaly of the cornea resulting from damage to the corneal surface. When a pellet enters the eye, it makes a hole," Tak said.

"She has one pellet inside her eye. The eye is sensitive like a water ball. There is always a risk. We have performed one surgery on her and multiple surgeries need to be performed. She is perhaps the youngest pellet victim we have treated."

Muhammad Ashraf Wani, who leads a group of 1,233 pellet gun victims, said that Hiba is the youngest to date.

In the meantime, Mursala Jan will attempt to comfort her young daughter as she prepares for another surgery.

"What can be more painful for a toddler's mother?" she said. "I know she is in immense pain and she doesn't even know how to express it."

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