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Besides improvised explosive devices and encounters between Indian security forces and the militants, the children in Kashmir's border areas need fear another agent of death -- artillery shells. Villages along the Line of Control -- which separates India from Pakistan in Kashmir -- have seen numerous instances of cross-border shelling, strewing death and injuries.
Some of these shells do not burst on impact, but lie there, still 'live,' potential landmines now. And over the years, many children have been killed, and many maimed when they accidentally triggered off blasts, though, nobody can tell you for sure just how many were killed and how many survived with permanent injuries.
Three-year-old Mohammad Saleem Shah lost his right foot a year ago on Id day when his cousin set off a grenade accidentally.
Photo: Mohammad Shafi
Three-year-old Mohammad Saleem Shah is one such who survived an unintentional mine. In his case, it wasn't a shell that did the damage, but a grenade.
The accident happened a year ago, on Id day. Mohammad's 11-year-old cousin had carried him out to play, to a field near his house in Lalpora village, Kupwara district.
There the elder boy stumbled upon a muddy brown object. He picked it up, toyed with it, and threw it down. The grenade exploded, killing him on the spot, injuring two others around him, and losing Mohammad, who was in his cousin's arms, his right foot.
"He was a gentle child, very quiet and well-behaved," his mother said. "After that accident, he cries all the time, cannot sleep, does not eat... and is always sick."
Psychiatrists -- a breed of whom Mohammad's parents are not even aware of -- put the change down to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, something that can accompany any kind of trauma. Like, for instance, the loss of a loved one or witnessing a violent incident.
In Mohammad's case he not only witnessed the incident, but was part of it too, and so, suffered more. Even otherwise, psychiatrists say, a child in Kashmir is under severe stress13, the sheer strain of survival amidst bloodshed lowering his threshold to mental ailments day by day.
"Besides the usual neurotic ailments everyone here is prone to, like depression and anxiety, a disabled child would have to deal with organ inferiority," said Dr Wahid Khan, a leading mental health practitioner in Srinagar. "He feels inferior to his peers, and has a low self-esteem, which is an added burden on his already stressed mind."
Worse, he continues to live in the same atmosphere that crippled him, under the shadow of the same two guns. "Any normal society offers the child much better chances of adjusting to his disability," Dr Khan said. "But living here, he may not be able to do that. He could develop chronic psychological personality malfunctions."
Add to this the lack of support system in Kashmir: Just Rs 350 as sustenance allowance per month; very limited avenues14 for addressing the psychological setback; and equally poor, if not worse, facilities to help the disabled over their incapacities.
Psychiatrists like Dr Wahid Khan say the sheer strain of survival amidst bloodshed in Kashmir lowers a child's threshold to mental ailments.
Photo: Mohammad Shafi
Besides the Bone and Joint Hospital in Srinagar, there is the Composite Regional Centre, Bemina, Srinagar, a Union government-funded establishment that specialises, among others, in artificial limbs. But these do not meet the requirements of the valley, orthopaedists say.
Take, for instance, Rashid's (name changed) case. It is eight years since 'two, three bullets' tore through the closed window of his bedroom in Anantnag and shattered one of his legs. He was only 12 then.
His family's financial status does not permit him to seek medical help outside the valley, so he has been moving around on crutches since then. He had approached the Composite Regional Centre, he said, but had been turned away because 'they didn't then have the material to make a leg.'
Sociologist Dr Bashir Ahmad Dabla, who has in his study, Impact of conflict situation on women and children in Kashmir, looked closely at the frail support system that exists in Kashmir today, offers a solution to better it: bring in well-co-ordinated efforts from non-governmental organisations.
"In Kashmir, the NGO efforts are very small15," he said. "There is no systematic cooperation among the outfits working here... The immediate need is to co-ordinate their efforts, and take their help in effectively implementing governmental programmes and schemes."
And also, added Dr Untoo, from individuals who make a difference -- like Javed Ahmad Tak, a 28-year-old paraplegic in Bijbehara, Anantnag district.
On March 21, 1997, in a not uncommon incident in Kashmir, armed men barged into his house and shot at him. The bullet hit him in the waist, slicing his kidney, liver and spleen, and resulting in '40 per cent spinal injury'.
Today Javed, a science graduate, is a beacon of hope for many. He has put his crippling injury behind him completely. And from his wheelchair, he tries to reach out to society as best as he can: through free tuitions for schoolchildren, motivating disabled people, helping out16 with social welfare programmes.
"It took me two years to get over my disablement, to accept it as an unchangeable part of my life," Javed said. "I wanted to get a grip on it myself, be as independent as possible.
"At the same time, I wanted to help other people. Especially those like me. I began talking to them, trying to get them over their depression... And they responded to me well."
And what does Javed tell the disabled? "I tell them we are all puppets in God's hands and there is nothing we can do about His will," he replied. "I tell them to take disablement as a challenge, not to bow down to it."
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This article is part of Chindu Sreedharan's study on the Impact of Militancy on the Children of Kashmir, as a National Foundation for India Fellow for 2000-2001.
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