Zuhail Hamza after the attack on him.
SRINAGAR: In Kashmir, telling a story doesn’t demand only professional skills but quite often an exceptional commitment at great personal cost. Journalist Javid Ahmad Mir, 30, from the Langate area of Handwara in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district has, in the line of duty, lost his eyes, health, and job.
On August 5, 2016 when the valley was in the grip of protests after the death of popular militant commander Burhan Wani, Mir’s commitment to his job made him come out of his home to gather information about those who were injured during clashes in his area.
Amid strict restrictions, he managed to visit a local government hospital at Karlgund where protesters were being treated for their injuries. He headed off home to file his report. On the way, an armoured vehicle passed him. From the top of it, a policeman fired a volley of pellets at his face, making him blind.
“The moment pellets hit me, I fell on the ground with a burning sensation all over my body. I couldn’t see anything. It was already dark. After some time, a few people came and rushed me back to the same hospital I had visited,’ he said.
On reaching the hospital, he said the security forces were on the rampage, beating paramedics and the injured. “Fearing the same fate, the people accompanying took me to my friend’s home. I was kept there for the whole night without any medical help”, he said.
Mir had 100 pellets in his hands, head, eyes, face, legs, and chest. He spent the night in agony. The next day, he was taken to Government District Hospital Baramulla and later to Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Government Hospital in Srinagar for specialized treatment.
It took Mir 27 days to stand up, unsupported. An operation on his eyes helped him regain only partial vision in his right eye. But his left eye lost vision completely as it had severe damages.
Two liters of fluid were extracted from his lungs due to infection as the pellets had pierced deep into his chest, head, eyes and other parts of the body.
When he was finally discharged, after spending his savings of Rs 3 lakh, Mir was partially blind and broken. It’s been a year now and he has no money for further treatment. No one from the fraternity has offered to help, either in terms of money or work.
Javid Mir, bottom left, before the pellet attack, and after the attack.
Mir tried to raise money by teaching in a private school but the meager honorarium of Rs 3000 was too little. His monthly bill for medicines alone is Rs 15,000. He is on continuing treatment to prevent the spread of infection due to the dozens of pellets still insides his body. As the government hospitals in the state do not provide free medicines but only concessional rates on some medicines and tests, Mir has to buy everything from the market.
Besides being a journalist Mir was also working as layout designer for some local newspapers to make ends meet. He was also owner of Kashmir News Network (KNN), a local news gathering agency from Langate area of north Kashmir that he sold recently to fund his treatment.
Ironically, the government hospitals in the state are not equipped to deal with the severe complications of pellet victims. Most of the victims prefer treatment in Chandigarh and Amritsar hospitals because there are no specialised treatment options in Kashmir. They prefer to receive only first-aid in the government hospitals of the valley.
However, in some cases, those who suffer pellet injuries prefer to go outside for treatment for non-medical reasons – mainly because they fear being booked or chased by the security agencies. Fearing arrest, they take admissions in state hospitals on fake identities.
As in Mir’s case, pellet victims mostly have vitreous haemorrhage, retinal detachment or damage to the cornea. They have only a perception of light and have to undergo multiple surgeries.
“There are two pellets still in my left eye. There are dozens of pellets in other parts of my body as well. I am often in severe pain. Doctors advised me to visit a hospital outside J&K for specialized treatment, but I can’t afford the treatment”, he said.
There is no government scheme of compensation and rehabilitation for the pellet victims as the security forces call it ‘action in retaliation’. However, the ruling coalition of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) led by chief minister Mehbooba Mufti has tried to offer a ‘healing touch’ for the victims of the 2016 unrest.
In January, Mufti announced that a Special Investigation Team will probe the killings in which the government had admitted the use of “excessive force”. She also said that the government will provide Rs 5 lakh compensation to those killed and injured in the unrest, including to those blinded or injured by pellets and that, in extreme cases, the government will also consider giving jobs to the victims’ families.
Mir approached the State Human Rights Commission and government institutions for help but apart from reassurances, he came away empty handed, despite the government having announced that it would give financial relief to pellet victims.
Data from Kashmir’s hospitals show that over 6,000 people suffered pellet injuries, with over 1,100 specifically hit in the eyes. However, data based on the official records of the government show that 2,524 people were injured by pellets, many in the eyes, in eight of the valley’s 10 districts (data from two districts is yet to be compiled). Of these, officials have submitted a list of 1,725 victims, including 59 women, whose identities have been confirmed by the district administration.
Now, as the government attempts to compile a list of victims eligible for compensation, the wrong or incomplete names and addresses in hospital records are proving a hurdle. It’s true that some victims have received compensation but many are still waiting.
According to the State Human Rights Commission’s records, the J&K government has given Rs 2 lakh each as financial assistance to 12 victims who have been blinded completely by pellets and Rs 1 lakh each to 10 who have been partially blinded.
Like Mir, most of pellet victims say the compensation can’t return their normal life. They said only timely help for the treatment could have been of some worth. Mir said that he did not know that if he will get compensation, but he needs a financial help to save his remaining eyesight.
“I was not part of any protest. But I was targeted for no sin of mine. I am a victim of highhandedness. If I am not being helped out, who else can expect compensation from the government, that too in time?” he asks.
Another photo-journalist, Zuhaib Maqbool Hamza from Srinagar, went through a similar ordeal on 4 September 2016. He was left with a bruised eye in a pellet attack by security forces while covering clashes in Srinagar.
After a media outcry, Hamza recently received Rs 2 lakh from Mufti as a part of the government’s ‘healing touch policy’. “Tough, it is a tough fight against every suffering I go through after that pellet attack. I still fight and I still try to recover what I have suffered. I can’t still see properly and am undergoing treatment after rounds of surgeries,” said Hamza.
The financial assistance to the Hamza was only possible when members of a photo-journalist association, after many failed attempts with government officials, took up the matter directly with Mufti.
Mir, though, is from the far-flung Langate area of north Kashmir with no affiliation with the media associations based Srinagar. He says that neither the Kashmir Editors’ Guild nor any other journalistic body has helped him to get treatment.
Journalists working with local media organizations have no insurance cover; barring a few, they have no provident fund, no guaranteed salaries or help if they are injured or killed.
Senior photo-journalist, Shafat Siddiqui, died in the 2014 floods while at work as a stringer for Pacific Press, Sipa USA and Dainik Jagran. He was washed away by the flood water near the Civil Secretariat in Srinagar.
Survived by aged parents, his wife, a young son, and two sisters, Siddiqui was disowned by the organizations he worked for so that they could avoid paying any ex-gratia relief to his family. It was only after the efforts of the Kashmir Press Photographers’ Association that his family was paid ex-gratia relief by Dainik Jagran.
If Siddiqui received the support of the media fraternity in his quest for financial relief, it was only because he worked in Srinagar. Had he been based in a remote area (like Mir), his story would have turned out very differently.
For Mir, life has become a burden. “I can’t sleep. I am scared. I have nightmares”, he said.
Irfan Quraishi is a Srinagar-based broadcast & multimedia journalist. He works as multimedia editor with Kashmir Press Service.