In Kashmir, “Non-Lethal” Weapons Cause Lethal Damage

Several people in Kashmir have reportedly been injured because of the use of rubber pellets by the security forces there. These pellets, which are presently categorised under “non-lethal” weapons, are fired through a pump-action gun. Yawar Nazir/ Getty Images
12 July, 2016

On the evening of 10 July 2016, at around 6 pm, Tamana Ashraf, a nine-year-old girl, was sitting by the window of her house at Tulumulla, located in the Ganderbal district of Jammu and Kashmir. A day had passed since the funeral of Burhan Wani, the divisional commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, who was killed after a brief gun battle with the security forces in South Kashmir’s Kokernag on 8 July. Protests erupted in parts of Kashmir soon after, resulting in clashes between those from the region and personnel from the security forces. Tamana was observing one such confrontation unfold from within the confines of her home. Suddenly, she heard a loud bang. The noise was followed by an excruciating pain in her left eye.

When we met Tamana, currently a student in the fifth grade, on 11 July at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital in Srinagar, she wore a pair of dark glasses to cover her eyes. Recounting the sequence of events as she reclined on her bed at the hospital, she told us she was not sure of what had happened at first. Tamana’s mother, Shameema, recalled that she was initially unable to fathom why her daughter’s eye was bleeding either. A little later, they realised that Tamana had been hit by a rubber pellet. These pellets, which are presently categorised under “non-lethal” weapons, are fired through a pump-action gun. They were first reported to be used by the police and paramilitary forces in Kashmir in 2010.

Amid the turbulent atmosphere just outside their house, Shameema said that as she tried to rush Tamana to the nearby hospital, members from the Central Reserve Police Force hit her with a stone on her chest. She stated that an officer from the Jammu and Kashmir police began beating her and she soon lost her consciousness. She came to, she told us, only after some of the people on the street helped her and gave her some water. Shameema said that she then rushed her daughter to the SMHS hospital, where the doctors provided Tamana with first-aid. When we spoke to Tamana, the pellet was still embedded inside her eye.

Shameema said that the doctors have assured her that Tamana will recover, and that her eye-sight will not be affected. But she was still worried, given the gravity of her daughter’s injury, and the quality of the medical care she had been receiving so far.

A few beds away from Tamana’s, Irshad Ahmad, an 18-year-old man from Pakharpora in Budgam district, bore a bandage over his eye and marks left by pellets over his face. Ahmad had been hit by pellets all over his chest and abdomen too.

According to Ahmad, on 11 July, he had gone to his aunt’s house at Rajpura village in Pulwama district, early in the morning. He told us that he had stepped out to meet his friends and was walking on the road with them when a police vehicle stopped in front of the group. A few policemen, Ahmad continued, got off the vehicle and fired pellets at the young men. Ahmad fell right there. The pellets were strewn across his body, and one had found its way to his left eye.

One of Ahmad’s friends, who was present at the hospital, told us that they took him to a nearby park. According to him, they tried to remove the pellets from Ahmad’s body, but could not muster the courage to dislodge the one in his eyes. Ahmad’s friend said that while they were attempting to the help him, the policemen, who had followed the group to the park, began beating them ruthlessly. After a while, when the policemen left, Ahmad’s friends took him to the SMHS hospital, where he was admitted in the ophthalmology section. The pellet from Ahmad’s eye had not been removed when we met him yesterday. Other patients and staffers at the hospital told us that this was not because the doctors are unwilling to treat him, but because they have had to attend to far more serious patients who needed urgent care.

In another ward of the SMHS hospital, a 16-year-old boy lay calmly on his bed. Both his eyes were wrapped with bandages. His face was swollen and had acquired a pale-blue hue.

The 16-year-old boy told us that on 10 July, at around one pm, he had gone to offer the Zuhr prayer, or the afternoon prayer, at a mosque in Khanyar, in downtown Srinagar. Just as he was reaching the mosque, the sixteen-year-old boy said that he was hit by pellets all over his body, including both his eyes. Alone, he cried out for help. According to him, the CRPF men deployed there did not allow him to leave. The boy’s father told us that he got worried when his son did not return home for several hours. He found his son at 5 pm that evening, “lying on the ground, smeared in his own blood.” “He has lost a lot of blood,” the father said. A doctor from SMHS hospital told us that, as of today afternoon, Tamana, Ahmad and the sixteen-year-old boy had all been operated on.

Although authorities in Kashmir’s hospitals have declared the current situation a medical emergency, personnel from the security forces have reportedly beaten and attacked patients at various places, including within the SMHS hospital. In a report that was published in The Tribune on 10 July, Dr Kaisar Ahmad, the principal of the Government Medical College in Srinagar, appealed to both civilians and the security forces for the safe passage of ambulances so that patients could be treated at the earliest. On 11 July, Greater Kashmir, a local newspaper, reported that 25 ambulances have been attacked between 9 July and 11 July. When we spoke to Saleem-ur-Rehman, the director of health services at Kashmir around 35 to 40 ambulances. Almost all the patients and staffers from the SMHS hospital—most of whom are from south Kashmir—that we spoke to, told us that the security forces had attacked the vehicles they were travelling in. In some cases, these vehicles had been attacked more than once.

On 11 July, Aamir Nazir Latoo, a 24-year-old student from Bijbehara in Anantnag district, was hit by a bullet in his abdomen. Aamir’s father, Nazir Ahmad Latoo, told us that his son, who studied in Delhi University, had come back home for Eid. Nazir said that Aamir was sitting on the banks of Jhelum river with his friends, when suddenly, members from the security forces started firing at them indiscriminately, and without any provocation, from the other side of the river.

Nazir said that Aamir was taken to the sub-district hospital in Bijbehara. The doctors there referred Aamir to the SMHS hospital and arranged an ambulance for him. Nazir, who accompanied Aamir in the ambulance, said that the vehicle had covered barely a few kilometers when the jeep of the Station House Officer of Bijbehara halted in front of it. According to Nazir, another police vehicle stopped behind the ambulance as well.

Ahmed told us that the policemen in the car dragged everyone, except Aamir, out of the ambulance, and beat them. According to Nazir, the driver was attacked so viciously that he fell unconscious. He said that the policemen also broke the windows of the ambulance. The shards injured Aamir further.

Since the driver was unable to operate the ambulance any longer, Nazir said that an attendant drove the vehicle till the SMHS hospital. Nazir recalled that while the ambulance was en route, members of the police and CRPF attempted to stop it at three different points. The attendant refused to slow the vehicle down. After being admitted to the SMHS hospital, Aamir succumbed to his injuries at 3 am today morning.

Dr Nazir Chaudhary, the medical superintendent of the SMHS hospital, said that six, including Aamir, among those who had been admitted to the hospital with similar injuries had died over the past four days. “Seventy-seven persons have been hit by pellets in their eyes. Seventeen people, including two women, have bullet injuries in their abdomen,” Chaudhary told us over the phone yesterday. “One person has been hit by a bullet in his head. His condition is critical.”

Meanwhile, reports of the violence that has extended to hospitals have continued to pour in from different parts of the valley. On 10 July, the security forces reportedly fired teargas shells inside the SMHS hospital. Dr Adil Ashraf, the president of the Resident Doctors Association (RDA), said that this adversely affected the condition of four patients, who were suffering from chronic lung diseases and being treated in the emergency unit of the hospital. Ashraf also said that the police and the CRPF had opened fire at the Bijbehara sub-district hospital on 11 July.

Late last night, doctors from the SMHS hospital said, personnel from the CRPF fired teargas shells inside the hospital once again. According to Ashraf, members of the CRPF had brought one of their colleagues to the hospital because he had suffered from a cardiac arrest. Some of the locals at the hospital, he said, got irked by the presence of the security forces and began chasing the CRPF officials away. Subsequently, as the CRPF personnel were shifting their colleague to Sher-I-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) hospital, they fired the teargas shells. “The situation is still tense here,” Ashraf said.

The fear of backlash from the security forces was evident even when we visited the SMHS hospital. All the patients who were admitted for their injuries there, were registered by serial numbers and not their names or addresses. The reason for this secrecy, the patients said, was the threat of being identified by members of the security and intelligence agencies, which are keeping a record of the injured.

Yesterday, the divisional commissioner of Kashmir, Asgar Samoon, told Kashmir News Service, a local news agency, that 1,365 people have been injured since 9 July. More than 200 people among them, he said, have been referred to hospitals in Srinagar for specialised treatment. Ashraf told us that the pattern of the injuries inflicted upon the patients admitted at the SMHS hospital reveal that most of them have been shot above their abdomen. More than 450 officials from the police and paramilitary forces have reportedly been wounded during the clashes with protesters in the valley.

The death toll has now mounted to 33 people. The entire valley is under a strict curfew. Mobile services in south Kashmir and mobile Internet services in the rest of the region continue to be suspended. Most places in south Kashmir remain tense as ambulances and other vehicles ferry patients to Srinagar hospitals for treatment.