Scarred, ill or killed: How the Kashmir conflict impacts children

Scarred, ill or killed: How the Kashmir conflict impacts children

05 August 2020
In November 2018, when Hiba was 18 months old, security forces and protesters clashed outside her home in Shopian district’s Kapran village. Marsala Jan, her mother said that they peered out of their home when pellets hit Hiba’s right eye. 

SHEFALI RAFIQ BHAT

On the morning of 26 June, Mohammad Yaseen Bhat, a 46-year-old government employee in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kulgam district, was getting ready to go to work when his four-year-old son, Nihaan Bhat, insisted on accompanying him. At first, he tried to deter his son—the youngest of three siblings—but ultimately agreed to his request. Mohammad, his brother-in-law Nisar Ahmad Mir, and Nihaan drove to his workplace in Anantnag district’s Bijbehara town. Mohammad told us that after dropping him off, Mir and Nihaan were headed to the picturesque Padshahi Bagh area for a picnic while he worked. Around noon, Mohammad heard gunshots. He said Mir called him and informed that a bullet had hit Nihaan in the chest. The four-year-old died within minutes.

According to the Central Reserve Police Force, militants had attacked a party of the troops present in the area and ended up shooting Nihaan as well. At least two other children—who were also lone sons of their families, like Nihaan—have died in Kashmir within the first six months of 2020.

These deaths are no anomalies—children have long been among the many casualties of the Kashmir conflict. Between 2003 and 2017, the Jammu and Kashmir witnessed at least 318 killings of children, according to a report by the civil-society group Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society. Of these, the report noted, “extensive use of tear-smoke shells and pellet shotguns resulted in killings of at least 16 children.” Even last year, eight children were killed and seven were maimed, according to the United Nations’ latest report on Children and Armed Conflict. Notably, on 5 August 2019, the Indian government effectively abrogated Article 370, following which several accounts of excesses by the security forces—including those directed at children—emerged from Jammu and Kashmir.

The violence that children in Kashmir endure is just one way in which their lives are endangered. According to Khurram Parvez, JKCCS’s programme coordinator, the mental health of children across the Valley is deteriorating because they witness brutal violence regularly. “Overall, the situation has been constantly the same for the past years,” Parvez said, referring to child rights in Kashmir. “And there’s no indication of things improving.”

The UN report noted that the casualties were mainly caused by the “torture in detention, shootings, including from pellet guns, and cross-border shelling.” On the evening of 4 May, CRPF personnel at Handwara’s Wanigam area—in Kupwara district—exchanged gunfire with militants. When the firing began, about seven members of a family were ploughing their field nearby, according to one of them, Feroz Ahmad. The family ran towards their home, located about two kilometres away. Upon reaching, Feroz said, they realised that his cousin Hazim Shafi Bhat, who was somewhere near the field during the firing, had not made it back home. The family was worried. More so as Hazim, a 16-year-old seventh-standard student, had a physical disability. “His hands would shake while writing, and his tongue would totter on speaking,” Feroz said. Around the time of Iftar that night, Feroz called a journalist he knew to inquire about his cousin’s whereabouts. Feroz said the journalist immediately informed him that Hazim had died in the gunfire.

The family wanted to bury Hazim in the local graveyard. However, the police refused. They said that they feared a crowd would gather and flout the restrictions placed to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. He was buried at a graveyard reserved for foreign militants in Sheeri, an area in the neighbouring Baramulla district, about forty kilometres away from his home. “We were around twenty family members, accompanied by the local tehsildar. We buried him ourselves and offered funeral prayers,” Feroz said. “You can’t imagine what the family is going through.”

Fifteen days after Hazim’s death, Indian security forces and militants engaged in a gunfight in Srinagar’s Nawakadal neighbourhood, on 19 May. The confrontation led to the death of two militants and left a trail of destruction, reportedly damaging at least a dozen houses. After the clash was over, in the evening, several locals had gathered at the site to see the destruction. Among the locals were Basim Aijaz, a 14-year-old seventh-standard student who lived near the neighbourhood, and some of his friends. An explosion occurred at the site during their visit, causing one of the structures to collapse and injure Basim.

Basim’s father, Aijaz Ahmad, who drives a load-carrier for a living, was working at the time. At 8 pm, Aijaz said, he received a call informing him that his son had injured his foot and was admitted in the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital in Srinagar. When he reached the hospital after four hours, he saw that his son was wrapped in bandages, suffering from severe burn injuries. “He spoke to me, even with his mother,” Aijaz told us. Within 24 hours, on Shab-e-Qadar—an auspicious night in Islam—Basim died.

According to Aijaz, his son did not have a peaceful funeral. “The CRPF threw shells during the funeral,” he said. We emailed the CRPF for a response regarding this comment but did not receive a response. This piece will be updated if and when they respond.

In multiple cases, families blamed the Indian security forces for being violent with their children and causing them trauma. These incidents do not always get public attention. But this year, one such instance was highlighted in the media. On 1 July, an image of a toddler sitting atop the dead body of Bashir Ahmad, his grandfather, went viral on social media. The child’s grandfather was lying dead on a road in the image. News reports stated that he died in the crossfire between militants and Indian security forces in Kashmir’s Sopore area.

According to reports, security forces accused militants of killing Bashir. Soon after, local police shared the picture of the three-year-old, with captions stating that the child was rescued by a policeman. A report in The Wire said the three-year-old told the family that a policeman had shot Bashir. A video of the child narrating what had happened—recorded with the consent of his parents—was also published and then later taken down “following objections from some readers who found it distressing.”

Several people on social media pointed out that the child’s image should not have been circulated online. “The police violated the Juvenile Justice Act by publishing his image … without the consent of his parents,” Parvez, from JKCCS, said. “This should not have been done. It is the prerogative of the family.” Parvez pointed out that according to several studies even witnessing violence in movies can traumatise children. “In this context, look at the children in Kashmir,” he said. “Every second day, they see people being beaten up on roads, someone in the forces holding them, abusing them. The impact is far greater on children.”

Parvez’s comment did not seem unfounded. On 10 July 2016, a sixth-standard student was heading home from a relative’s house in Pulwama district’s Nikas area. The sixth-standard student—now 17 years old—told us that he crossed a group of protesters on his way “when the security forces targeted” him and fired pellets at him. When we met his family this year, they said that the teenager had been exhibiting violent behaviour.

Two days before the day the teenager said he was attacked, the Indian security forces had killed Burhan Wani, the commander of the militant group Hizbul Mujahideen. Wani was a popular militant in Kashmir who had picked up arms as a minor. His death sparked widespread protests across the Valley. Indian security forces used pellets—which it categorised as non-lethal despite their ability to cause lethal damage—to control the protesters. According to a study on pellet victims conducted by the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences after the 2016 unrest, 85 percent of 380 such victims reportedly suffered from psychological problems. “Eye injuries with loss of vision found to be the highest risk for developing a psychiatric illness,” the study noted.

During our visit to the teenager’s home on 3 July this year, his father said that his eyes were perforated, and he suffered from multiple injuries in his head and abdominal cavity. The teenager had to drop out of school due to the attack. “I can’t see anything properly, how could I read,” the teenager said. “I can see only with a lens. Without it, I start throwing out my arms around.” His father told us that even after seven surgeries, his vision could not be retrieved. The teenager still has a pellet inside his eye, the father said.

His father works as a labourer and sometimes, so does his brother, an eleventh standard student, to support their family of five. But a stringent lockdown imposed in the erstwhile state ahead of 5 August last year and another one imposed this year to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, has left all family members unemployed, in dire straits. Locals used to pitch in to help the family make ends meet earlier, but not anymore. When we met them, they said that for nearly three months they had been unable to take the 17-year-old to the doctor.

Last year, too, the family had encountered obstacles in accessing medical aid. During last year’s lockdown, even procuring medicines for the teenager was difficult, his father told us. He added that it is tough to consult doctors even now. “Due to the fear of the pandemic, we have kept to our home,” he said.

According to his father, the teenager’s attitude has drastically changed since the incident. He used to be shy and soft-spoken. But now, he often has bursts of anger and fights. “He beats his mother,” his father said. He added that the teenager once broke the window panes of his room. When asked if the family had sought help from a mental-health specialist regarding his behaviour, his father replied, “Even managing travel costs to the ophthalmologist is difficult.”

“This behaviour has familial acceptance,” Yuman Kawoosa, a mental-health practitioner in the Valley, told us, in response to a question about the teenager. “It is not seen as a deviation from normal, needing intervention,” she said. According to her, such a situation needs urgent intervention or else mental issues can become very acute. She added, “In absence of regular schooling, socialisation process in children is affected.” Kashmir has seen schools shut down for months at a stretch due to unrest.

During our reporting, we also met the youngest victim of pellet injuries in Kashmir, Hiba Jan. In November 2018, when Hiba was 18 months old, security forces and protesters clashed outside her home in Shopian district’s Kapran village. Marsala Jan, her mother told us, that they peered out of their home to see what was happening when pellets hit Hiba’s right eye. “Was she pelting stones? How could she pick up stones?” Marsala said while narrating the incident. She added that after the incident, Hiba had frequent bouts of fever and allergies.

The family has struggled to get her eye treated. Nisar Ahmad, her father, is a farmer and sometimes works as a labourer. Once, they borrowed money from their relatives to take her to Amritsar for treatment. In the absence of public transport, they had to pay Rs 1,200 for an ambulance to take her to SMHS hospital in Srinagar a couple of times. According to Nisar, the government has given them Rs 1 lakh which can only be used once Hiba begins going to school. Due to the lockdown to contain the novel coronavirus, she also had to miss appointments with her ophthalmologist.

The family said that doctors told them that her vision in the right eye may never return. But the family has still not lost hope. It is unclear if she can see from the right eye as of now. Nisar told us that they try to close her left eye to see if she could see with her right one, “but she won’t let us.” Her mother said that once she  grows up she will herself tell if she can see or not. But she added, “Deep down, I know what has happened.”

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