Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Mohsin Nabi is lying on a hospital bed in Srinagar, the main city in Indian-administered Kashmir. His face and left eye have small visible holes of iron pellets fired by the Indian security forces.
The 23-year-old says while he was walking along with his friends towards Kachdora village when the group of boys were hit by a volley of pellets fired by Indian security forces.
Three villages, including Kachdora, in southern Kashmir’s Shopian district, was the scene of a bloody encounter on Sunday in which 19 people were killed that included at least four civilians.
A fifth civilian, a 17-year-old boy, succumbed to his injuries on Tuesday.
“Protests were happening at a distance but the firing was unprovoked, a total nine boys were hit with me. We were just walking and they targeted us,” said Nabi, whose friend is also being treated for pellet injuries in the same ward.
“Everything went dark then I don’t know who brought me here,” he says adding that the doctors have performed a primary surgery of removing the pellets from his eyeballs.
Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS), located in the main city Srinagar, is overwhelmed with patients, most of them with bloody eyes.
The medical superintendent of the hospital Dr Saleem Tak told Al Jazeera that at least 41 young men are being treated with the pellet injuries in their eyes.
Lifelong vision impairment
Southern Kashmir has been on the boil since charismatic rebel commander, Burhan Wani, was killed in 2016. More than 200 rebels have been killed since then in security operations run by the Indian armed forces.
They deliberately blind our children to silence us
Thousands of people came out on the streets to protest one of the bloodiest days in recent months. Nearly 50 people were wounded, most of them in their eyes, after security forces fired on a crowd of tens of thousands gathered to attend the funeral of those killed.
The Muslim-majority region remains tense as schools, colleges and businesses were closed as part of the two-day shutdown called by separatist leaders.
The young men, mostly in their teenage years and early 20s, are now facing a bleak future after losing their vision, the doctors say.
A senior doctor at the hospital, who was not authorised to speak to media, told Al Jazeera that he has performed 40 eye surgeries in two days.
“It depends on the nature of the injury. The eye is very delicate, though the injury is not life-threatening, they will likely suffer from some kind of lifelong vision impairment.
“In the past two years, we have treated more than 1,000 people with pellet injuries. Now we are used to mass injuries and always geared up,” he said.
On the bed adjacent to Nabi, Adil Sheikh, 18, from Supura Shopian village is silent. The blocked blood clots on his swollen left eye depict the graveness of his injury.
“I had gone to a shop and was hit on the way,” said Adil in a feeble tone as he was not able to make a frequent lip movement due to pain. “I don’t know what happened after that.”
“Back home his mother doesn’t know that her son has lost his one eye. I told her that he has a minor injury on his face,” Adil’s uncle, who did not want to be named, said.
‘Injured in cross firing’
The ward number eight in the Ophthalmology Department is full of pellet victims from Shopian and adjoining villages of south Kashmir.
The scenes look similar to 2016 when hundreds of Kashmiris were blinded either completely or partially due to the use of pellet guns on protesters.
The mass blinding of civilians two years ago had drawn criticism from the international human rights groups.
Amnesty International has repeatedly urged security forces to stop the use of pellets guns immediately “in line with international human rights standards on the use of force”.
People tried to break the cordon at the encounters sites in which we had to retaliate and some were hit with pellets in the clashes.
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 six years ago.
A strong anti-India sentiment runs high in the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley. The region is claimed by both India and Pakistan, but New Delhi and Islamabad govern parts of the disputed Himalayan territory.
The conflict has changed drastically in the past decade as popular street demonstrations took centre-stage and locals are openly supporting the cause of rebels who are fighting the Indian state in the region.
Most of the young men admitted to the hospital with eye injuries say they now fear lifelong blindness.
“The house where gunfight occurred belongs to my uncle. In our family, one house was completely damaged and five houses have been left roofless. The forces created havoc even after the gun battle,” says Ahmad, a resident of Kachdora village who is attending his cousin at the hospital.
“They fired at people in front of my eyes. How can we come to terms with that, if India is celebrating that they have defeated people here by killing and blinding, they are wrong, hundred more are ready to die and resist.”
The family members attending the pellet victims fight their emotions in the hospital ward. Forty-five-year-old Hanifa sobs silently while looking at her son’s eyes covered with a bandage.
“It seems the pellets have pierced my heart…. They deliberately blind our children to silence us,” she said.
“They can shoot their legs and below [the] chest, they just want to maim them for life. Blinding of hundreds cannot be a coincidence,” said Hanifa, adding that her 18-year-old son was hit in the eyes while he was standing in the lawn of her sister’s house in Dragad village of Shopian.
Ambarkar Shriram Dinkar, the senior superintendent of police of Shopian, told Al Jazeera that “people were either injured in cross firing or they were trying to break the cordon at the encounter sites”.
“People tried to break the cordon at the encounters sites in which we had to retaliate and some were hit with pellets in the clashes,” he said.