When I entered the partially lit room, it appeared Amir Kabir, 19, silently conversed with the God.
Alone, he squatted in one of the corners near the wooden window. His face towards the tall poplars in front of the sun-bleached mountains which host a picket of Indian troops. I constantly watched his lip sync, as if waiting for a saint to profess, while he moved his right thumb over the prayer beads.
Amir did not turn towards me for a while and we kept watching in the cold room where a silence of desolation loomed large. Then his mother, Jahanara Begum, entered the room, breaking the silence that was becoming suffocating. “The presswallas have come to meet you my son,” she said almost like a murmur.
He looked in the direction of the voice as she spoke. Moments later I greeted him and he moved his head towards me. I asked: “How are you Amir?”
“I am fine, Alhamdulillah,” he replied in a feeble voice, and then went on to add, instantly, “Things for me have changed forever.”
I could easily make out the “change” he was speaking about. As he greeted us, he kept groping as if in dark. We shook his warm hand and moved closer to him. I could see his eyes almost submerged in the sockets. They lacked any activity. There were no tears. He had lost his vision during the civil unrest in 2010.
Amir is a resident of north Kashmir’s Baramulla town, which is often called the “Garrison town” of Kashmir owing to the presence of army cantonments, checkpoints, barbed wires, bullet proof vehicles and massive troops in the region.
His tale of sufferings began on September 18, 2010, when his mother asked him to accompany her to a local hospital. “She had developed some complications in stomach. So I went with her,” he said.
“Tempers were running high in those days. There were curfews, firing, and clashes going on in between police and youth,” he added in the same breath.
When Amir’s mother entered the hospital, he stood up near the gate and waited for her to return. Suddenly, there was a rumble of gunfire, followed by the thuds of tear gas. Police was acting in a bid to disperse the pro-freedom seeking youth, who were hurling stones in retaliation.
“My mother came out and she gave me the doctor’s prescription to fetch medicine. As I moved away from the gate, I saw the batches of youth raising pro-freedom slogans nearby. The moment I preceded further, the police and CRPF fired pellets on the youth to disperse them. Dozens of them hit me as well. I fell unconscious,” he said with his hands moving in all directions.
As he stops, his mother, who sat beside him breaks into tears.
“The blood was oozing out of my body. The boys there lifted me up and ferried me to Srinagar for the treatment,” he said amid the sobs of his mother that became louder with every minute.
On that day travelling on Srinagar- Baramulla road was perilous. Apart from being intercepted by groups of youth seeking freedom, ‘the ambulance was stopped by government forces at several places’. “They would beat up the attendants. They would often question why we people wanted Azaadi from India?” he said emphatically.
Amir said his pain was unbearable at that time. In his words he felt somebody had poked a hot iron into his eyes. “The perilous travel had to be taken and somehow the ambulance managed to reach SKIMS Medical College Bemina, Srinagar” he remarked.
The doctors at the medical facility diagnosed him with a bilateral injury with open globe damage in left eye and vitreous Hemorrhage in right eye. In a common man’s language there were very few chances of him seeing again. He was later referred for specialized treatment to All India Institute of Medical Sciences New Delhi, but thus far the efforts to restore his vision have failed.
Suddenly, the life for the teenager changed forever. It was difficult for him to reconcile with the abrupt entry into the life in darkness. Slowly, he did found ways to accept the reality. His life was reduced to that semi-lit room, with pale mud walls, shabby wooden shelves, and piles of quilts stuffed in one of the corners adjacent to the place where he sits.
It appeared to me he had found a refuge in loneliness, in religion, in those prayer beads.
Amir showed me his photograph taken before the incident. He stood in a garden, clean shaven, had oiled hair parted sideways, with brown eyes. For some time, I could not believe he was the same person.
A year later Amir has gained weight. He sported a cropped beard and had sprayed the attar (perfume) all over his clothes. Physically, he looks like a man in his early thirties. His pictures from the ‘good days’, when he was a class 12 student and wanted to be a singer ran contradictory to his present. When he could see he wanted to pursue singing as a career. Not anymore.
“Now my dreams lay shattered,” he said. “I only pray now and listen to the religious talks. I draw my strength from Allah. He has been the biggest support which keeps me going.”
His mother, Jahanara, who by this time seemed to be settled while mopping her eyes chipped in and said she remembers that her son never remained static at one place. “He would always sing. He would regularly meet his friends. And we would always scold him for that he never used to be at home,” she said and broke down again.
“It’s not so now. He never leaves this room. He never comes to kitchen where he would crack jokes with me. He needs help even to go to bathroom. I would always ask Allah why you snatched the vision of his both eyes. If his only one eye would have been damaged, things would have been different,” she said amid sobs.
I was curious enough to ask Amir why he never left the room. After several insistences, he told me he now ‘prefers to live a lonely life’. “I was not a born blind. Whenever I used to speak to people like you, I would look into their eyes,” he told me. “Now it becomes very hard for me to accept that I could not see people. It makes me angry, very angry. I don’t want to meet anybody.”
Social relations are also fast changing for Amir as he told me that he used to have scores of friends. “It has changed now. During early days of injury, they would come to home. But, now, they call me once on my cellphone in a week. Life is changing with the change in my physical status,” he said.
Amir has also changed many new things after he lost his vision. He can operate cellular phone by remembering numbers and digits with his fingers. He can differentiate between shade and light with the changing position of the sun.
His family faces a real challenge as it is extremely difficult to bear medical expenses. They have to ferry him to the top most hospitals in Delhi and other places of India. But, as Amir could not travel by road, he had to be always air flown.
The family lives in rickety two storey structure on rent in old town of Baramulla. Amir’s father, Abdul Kabir, is a street vendor selling clothes and had come to Baramulla from a nearby village.
Abdul said, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had pledged that government would bear the medical expenses, but so far nothing has been paid. He believed that although the gesture will not bring back his son’s vision, but it would at least bail the family out of the debts they were in while spending his treatment.
The family also told me that not a single Hurriyat or separatist leader came even to console, leave aside any sort of monetary help from any of them.
“Some sort of help came from the local people and relatives. These Hurriyat people know only how to make speeches, nothing else,” his mother said.
Amir is not alone. He is one of the scores of other people who have remained the invisible victims of the conflict in Kashmir. Those victims, who never made it to the list of killed, but are living the life of dead and helplessness.
The Kashmiri Coalition of Civil Societies, who collated the number of injured in the civil unrest of 2010, say 2500 people were injured. CCS Coordinator Khurram Parvez said majority of those injured were youth. “Among this number, estimated five per cent of the people have some kind of permanent disability,” Parvez said.
At least 120 persons, predominantly youth, were killed during the five months of unrest last year. However, the government claims that only 104 people were killed in that period of time, 894 people were injured, and 18 people suffered permanent disability.
At Srinagar’s SMHS hospital a doctor, who is an ophthalmologist, told me that last summer he treated 50 people for eye injuries, who were injured after they received tear gas canisters and ammo fired by the troopers. He told me that many among those “young boys” lost one of their eyes due to grievous injuries.
As I started to end my conversation with Amir, I asked him does he regret his decision of being at a wrong place at a wrong time. “No I don’t,” he remarked.
As I winded up, I sought permission to leave. He shook both hands with me and lamented: “Why Kashmiri nation, its people, and its leaders have a tendency to forget things so earnestly.”
(Wasim Khalid is a journalist. He traveled to north Kashmir's Baramulla a year after the civil unrest to figure out the conditions of the victims' families and the injured)