Why Kashmir's survivors want to return to the streets
- 18 August 2010
- From the section South Asia
His voice weakened by pain, Hilal Ahmed says in a near whisper that he is lucky to be alive.
The 22-year-old student of zoology says he was participating in a peaceful protest march demanding "freedom from India" in his hometown, Anantnag, in Indian-administered Kashmir on 2 August when he was hit by bullets - on his stomach and arm - allegedly fired by security forces.
"I felt a burning, hot feeling in my stomach as I fell down. I looked down to see some blood oozing out of my stomach. I didn't feel any pain. I began to walk, and then I collapsed," says Mr Ahmed, lying on a hospital bed in the capital, Srinagar.
It took three and a half hours for his family and friends to bring him to the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital, barely 40km from where he was shot. It took time to pick him from the streets and negotiate several security checkpoints on the way to Srinagar.
At the hospital, where most of the victims of the ongoing conflict in the Kashmir valley are being admitted, doctors found that a bullet had pierced through his abdomen and perforated the small and large intestines. Poisonous intestinal matter was flooding into the stomach.
Doctors repaired his intestines and his arm after a three-hour surgery.
"I don't know what I did to deserve this," says Hilal, softly. "I did not pelt stones. I knew that if we pelted stones we could be shot at. But I still got a bullet in my stomach. I don't understand."
What he does know that he is fortunate to come out alive in a conflict between pro-freedom protesters and security forces that has already claimed the lives of nearly 60 people in the past two months.
Kashmir, analysts say, is again teetering on the brink, with anti-India sentiments running high in the Muslim-dominated valley.
Mr Ahmed, who wants to be become a researcher in zoology one day, says he will return to the streets to participate in "peaceful" protests once he recovers fully from his injuries.
"I don't feel any anger. We are fighting for our rights. I am sure peaceful protests will bring results. I am sure the sacrifices of the martyrs, the boys who died this time, will not go in vain. Azadi (freedom) is a very important cause," he says.
Mr Ahmed brings out his small diary with a brown plastic cover from under his pillow and asks me to read a little poem he has written from his hospital bed.
It is a staccato, heart-felt piece of spontaneous verse peppered with a question that most people in the valley are asking these days. It also hints at the turmoil among Kashmir's youth.
Facing the weapon/Bare hands/Who will listen?
Facing the bullets/Oozing this blood/Who will listen?
Wishing the smiles/Full of tears/Who will listen?
Turning the heaven/Into hell/Who will listen?
Two beds away, Owais Ahmed, another survivor is asking the same question.
The 15-year-old schoolboy received a bullet when he was going to a wedding with his uncle in Kupwara on 2 August.
The two were crossing a protest demonstration when they got separated. After a while, Owais says, he saw his uncle fall to a bullet. When he went into the crowd to recover him, he also received a bullet in his stomach.
It took people three hours to get Owais to the hospital. Doctors found that the bullet - possibly fired from an elevation - had torn into Owais's abdomen and exited from his back, shattering one of his hip bones, and leaving two big holes in his intestines.
They wheeled him into emergency surgery, and removed part of his colon. A week later, lying in the hospital bed, Owais cannot fathom why they were fired upon.
"The protest had ended. I was walking to a marriage ceremony with my uncle. So why this," he says faintly.
At the 66-year-old, 750-bed SMHS hospital, doctors are used to treating critically injured victims of the conflict like Mr Ahmed and Owais.
They call it "crisis management" - something they have doing since 1989 since the valley exploded with a fierce anti-India movement and militancy.
This year, the hospital received three patients hit by bullets allegedly fired by security forces during protests in May. In June it had 15 such patients, and in July, 27. In the first nine days of August, the hospital had already received 57 such patients - pointing to the increasing ferocity of the conflict.
Six of the over 100 patients have died, and many others are seriously wounded.
The hospital's trauma theatre has been busy, with harried surgeons sometimes operating on four patients simultaneously.
"Most of the bullet injuries are in the abdominal area, chest, eyes and neck. They are single and multiple bullet wounds. They are all young men, in their late teens or early 20s," says hospital chief, Dr Waseem Qureshi.
They have also treated young men critically injured or blinded by rubber bullets, a doctor says.
The oldest patient was 47-year-old man, and the youngest "eight or nine years old," either beaten by security forces or trampled over during a stampede.
Back at the ward, doctors worry about an infection on Owais Ahmed's wounds. But the boy says he wants to return to the streets and protest peacefully because he "cannot let down the cause."
"I know what it is all about. I know it's about our freedom. The protests are justified. I will protest peacefully. My parents wont mind," he says, with a wan smile spreading on his long face.
"I have no fear now. I have been baptised by fire," says Owais, who wants to study to become a business management graduate.
It is a sentiment which, many analysts feel, Delhi is not paying enough heed to.