The Indian government's use of pellet guns in Indian-administered Kashmir to quell protests has led to higher rates of eye injuries, including blinding and permanent visual impairment, among civilians.
Pellets are like small iron ball bearings fired at a high velocity. Each cartridge in a gun contains around 400 pellets. When fired at short range, hundreds of pellets can pierce the body and damage the eyes. Even though the government says the pellet guns are "non-lethal" weapons, experts say that the pellets can be lethal and cause permanent damage.
"When a pellet hits an eye it is rare that a person won't lose eyesight," Dr. Bashir Ahmad Bhat, a Kashmir-based ophthalmologist and former head of the Ophthalmology Department at Kashmir's Government Medical College, told VICE news.
Hamid Nazir Bhat, 16, was hit by more than 100 pellets during a protest in the northern Kashmir's Palhallan area on May 21, 2015. Pellets were found in his face and skull, and caused him to lose his vision in one eye.
"He was returning from an evening classes center after finding the premises shut due to protests," Nazir Ahmad Bhat, Hamid's father, told VICE News. "On his way back to home a policeman shot at him with a pellet gun."
After being hit, Bhat says Hamid put his hands on his eyes and covered his face, as blood was oozing out of the puncture wounds made by the pellets. Bhat says his son told him he then started running away.
"The officer was shouting 'stop, right there' and calling out abuses but after running around 40 meters Hamid collapsed. Locals picked him up," Bhat said.
Hamid ran, he told his family, thinking the police might kill him.
The shots cause Hamid to lose vision in his one eye and damaged his other eye. He is just one of the more than 700 people who have been injured due to the police use of pellet guns, doctors at two hospitals in Kashmir told the India-based Hindu newspaper.
"Seventy percent of them lose their sight in one eye, and at times in both," a senior ophthalmologist told the Hindu. "While they haven't been killed, their lives are ruined forever."
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Human rights groups have criticized the government for using pellet guns. Last week, Amnesty International issued a call to completely ban the weapons.
"Jammu and Kashmir authorities must prohibit the use of pellet-firing shotguns in policing demonstrations, as they are inherently inaccurate and indiscriminate," said a statement from the human rights organization. "Because of [the] high potential to cause unwarranted injury, including to bystanders and others, pellet guns should have no place in law enforcement."
After finding out about the severity of Hamid's injuries, his family transferred him to a hospital in India's capital, New Delhi, for better care. His father has been in continuous touch with Hamid's uncle, who is accompanying him.
"He told me that the operation was successful, and 30-40 percent of his eyesight has returned. But we don't know what will happen now," he said.
Since mass protests in 2010 against Indian rule rocked Kashmir and resulted in the deaths of more than 120 civilians, there have been several cases of pellet injuries, with most of the injured being teenage boys.
Another victim of the pellet firing was 13-year-old Imaad Ahmad, who requested his real name not be used in this story. He was injured by a blast from a pellet gun in May, and around 40 pellets remain in his body.
"The doctors are saying it will cost $500 to remove the pellets but I'm an orphan. My father died in an accident a few years ago," Imaad told VICE news. Imaad's older brother is the breadwinner for his family and can't afford to pay for his treatment.
Bhat, the ophthalmologist, has treated at least seven pellet injury cases. All of them lost their eyesight, he says.
"A person may not die due to pellets but he/she can get disabled for life. It is better to die than live as a disabled person, dependent on others," Dr. Bhat remarked.
The Doctors Association Kashmir (DAK) has also expressed alarm over the unabated use of pellet guns.
"The government should immediately stop the brutal use of pellet guns as they cause serious injuries," DAK said in a statement.
While there has been no action to stop the use of pellets, the injury cases are rising. Most of the injuries to eyes have caused perforation and damaged the cornea, retina or optic nerve, leading to loss of eyesight.
"After the damage, medical treatment can only retain the shape of the eyeball. Even with the latest techniques you can remove the pellets but the damage is immense," Dr. Bhat added. "There is a 99 percent chance of losing eyesight."
A young wedding decorator, Danish Altaf, was hit in the eye by pellets during a protest that left him blind in his left eye.
"We are being told that his eyesight can recover if we can take him to a special hospital in India. It requires $1000. We can't afford such an amount," Danish's mother told VICE news at her modest half built one-story house.
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Danish's father is a vendor, selling cheap cloth dining sheets in villages on a bicycle, earning $50 a month. Danish's injury has left him unable to see properly, and he often falls and injures himself.
"He is disabled now," she said. "Today I will do everything for him but what will happen to him when I'm no more?" his mother asks.
The police have, however, maintained that there is standard operating procedure that is followed when using pellet guns, and that they use the weapons from a safe distance. The government has been mainly unable to take any action even though the number of people blinded due to pellets is rising. Hamid's father says the pellets that hit his son were fired from less than a meter away.
Hamid has told his family that he can identify the person who shot at him, but that depends on one critical thing: only if he will be able to see again.
Follow Fahad Shah on Twitter at @pzfahad
Watch the VICE News documentary, "Hate in Europe: Germany's Anti-Islamic Protests."
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