Sedow, India-administered Kashmir – More than one year has passed since Insha Mushtaq got a good night’s sleep.
The teenager cannot forget the evening of July 11, 2016, when, aged 14, she had opened the window to look out at the protests raging against the killing of a popular rebel commander, Burhan Wani, in the village of Sedow in southern Kashmir.
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The next moment, the police would fire a volley of iron pellets indiscriminately, hitting Insha in the face, skull and her eyes.
The pellets penetrated deep into her eyes.
She was suddenly blinded.
“I just peeped through the window and the policemen, who were outside, targeted me. I fell down and I don’t know what happened to me after that. Everything went dark,” she tells Al Jazeera.
Family members, especially her mother Afroza Bano, have been shattered by the injury inflicted on her.
“I remember when she was hit, the window panes had shattered and fell to the floor. When I saw Insha, all I could see was her face covered in blood,” the 42-year-old says.
“It was as if an earthquake had struck us. Everyone stood frozen for a moment, unable to grasp what had just happened. I removed my headscarf and wiped the blood from my daughter’s face. We shouted for help. At that moment, the electricity went off. Everything became dark,” says Bano, echoing her daughter’s words.
Fearing that she had been hit by a bullet, the family rushed her to the District Hospital in Shopian, where doctors referred her to a Kashmir’s tertiary care hospital in Srinagar.
The young girl bled profusely during the nearly 65km journey to Srinagar, the regional capital.
Due to the multiple pellet injuries, Bano says, the doctors could not stop her bleeding.
“It took us two hours to reach Srinagar hospital, where we heard of pellets for the first time,” says Bano.
Hundreds of patients were there already, grappling with similar injuries.
The use of pellet-firing shotguns
More than 60,000 people have been killed since an armed rebellion erupted in 1989 in Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan with both claiming the territory in its entirety.
The conflict has changed drastically in the past decade as popular street demonstrations took a centre-stage following a decline in armed rebellion.
The killing of Wani on July 8 last year intensified protests against Indian rule in the Muslim-majority Himalayan territory.
Since then, Indian security forces have injured thousands of young Kashmiris with pellet guns.
Security forces say the pellet-firing shotgun is “non-lethal” and used to disperse crowds, but hundreds of families have been scarred by the blinding injuries to teenagers since the weapon was introduced five years ago.
The use of these shotguns, which fire hundreds of skin-piercing iron pellets at a high velocity, has been condemned by human rights groups.
In September, Amnesty International released “Losing Sight in Kashmir: The Impact of Pellet-Firing Shotguns” – a comprehensive report documenting 88 cases of victims, mostly in their teens and early 20s, who were hit in their eyes during the 2016 uprising.
Amnesty has urged security forces to stop the use of pellet-firing shotguns immediately “in line with international human rights standards on the use of force”.
“By their very nature, the weapons have a high risk of causing serious and permanent injuries to the persons targeted as well as to others (bystanders). These risks are virtually impossible to control,” said Shalesh Rai, a member of Amnesty International India, in a press conference on September 13.
A life with no faces, colour or light
Insha Mushtaq, now 16 years old, is one of the hundreds of teenagers who have become pellet guns’ collateral damage.
Her face was pockmarked with more than hundred pellet wounds; some hit her eyes, some pierced close to her brain.
Her nasal, frontal, and maxillary bones were also broken.
The doctors treating her at the Surgical Intensive Care Unit of Srinagar’s Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS) had a grim diagnosis; procedures to try to restore her eyesight were unsuccessful. They described her case as “the worst we have ever seen”, as they focused on protecting her brain. She was noted down as blind for life.
Insha returned to her house after spending four months in different hospitals.
More than a year after the incident, she is still adapting to her new life which has no faces, no colours and no light.
Having once dreamt of becoming a doctor, she now spends her day in the confines of her parents’ two-room house in the quiet Sedow village on the southern edge of Kashmir valley.
She is completely dependent on her mother to eat, pray, or visit the toilet. Her cousins occasionally help her go to school or visit friends.
“I dreamed of becoming a doctor one day,” she says. “Now, I can’t go to school on my own.”
The thought that of never seeing again “eats me up inside”, she says.
I have no other work to do. I can’t even stare at the walls of my house.”
A daily routine
Sedow is a picturesque village on the way to Aharbal – a famous waterfall in southern Kashmir and a picnic spot. Surrounded by pine trees, the village is known for its potatoes – the only crop that grows in the highlands.
But for the teenage victim, it is the adhan, or call to prayers in the morning from a nearby mosque, that announces the beginning of her day.
“My days and my nights are the same,” she said. “It is only when I hear the adhan that I make a guess about the time,” she says, sitting nervously in an upstairs room where she spends most of her day.
The two-room house is now her playground, rehabilitation centre and her school.
To help her realise her dream, three teachers from her village visit her every day to continue her studying. But it’s a struggle.
“They give me oral lessons,” she says praising their patience and gesture. “I have to remember everything. I try my best but it is not that easy. I don’t know how long I can do this.”
‘I miss seeing my parents’
Naveed Ahmad, one of her teachers, said lessons can become challenging.
“Her moods change very frequently. One moment she might be willing to study, but a moment later she would refuse to be taught anything,” he says.
She has chosen music over mathematics as one of her five subjects as she struggles to make calculations.
“Sometimes, when I try to write, my hands shiver. I am told that I draw the wrong lines,” she says.
I miss my parents. I miss seeing them … I long to see my two younger brothers growing.
She puts on a brave face, her mother says, but there are times when she breaks down and cries.
“I want to go to school and study like I did earlier. I am living a miserable life,” she says. “I have adopted Braille and also use some equipment to study, but there is no electricity in the village most of the time.”
Her mother continues to dress her daughter in her favourite colours: pink and blue, and makes her wear colourful scarves.
“I liked pink and blue dresses and I still wear them. I don’t see colours but my mother tells me what colour I am wearing,” she says with a smile.
Though they are always nearby, she says she misses her parents.
“I miss my parents. I miss seeing them … I long to see my two younger brothers growing.”
Her expressions toss between sudden smiles and straight sullen faces.
“I sometimes want to see my face; I know my face was disfigured due to the pellets … I am not only blind but my eyes are blocked.”