“After I regained consciousness many hours after the operation was over, I was told that the police officer let the ambulance go only after he felt that by the time we would reach hospital we would not be alive.”
As reinforcements are being flown in to help Mehbooba Mufti’s beleaguered coalition manage the unrest that has already killed 44 people and sent nearly 1,800 to hospitals, one key issue still remains unaddressed. Though people continue to talk about it, nothing is being done about giving the injured the right to reach hospitals and ensuring their privacy while they receive proper treatment. All societies, including authoritarian ones, uphold these rights.
Police brutality on ambulances
In the massively overcrowded and noisy surgical and ophthalmology wards in Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital, almost every patient has a similar story. After being hit by bullets or pellets, they struggle to reach the hospital.
Sajad is an undergraduate student from Bijbeharawho survived a protracted surgery on July 11 after he was hit by two bullets. His spleen, perforated by the bullets, was removed. He said that once he was hit, his friends put him in an ambulance along with another boy, Amir Nazir, who recently graduated from Delhi University (DU) with a degree in business administration.
As the ambulance left for Srinagar, it was stopped by the police and an inspector rank officer barged into the vehicle, Sajad said. First he beat all the attendants and then the two bullet-hit youth. “I lost consciousness after getting the brutal thrashing,” Sajad said, insisting that he remembers the officer. “After I regained consciousness many hours after the operation was over, I was told that the police officer let the ambulance go only after he felt that by the time we would reach hospital we would not be alive.”
Nazir, the son of a small time handicrafts artisan and perhaps the first member of his clan to study at DU, fulfilled the police officer’s wishes. He died, even after volunteers donated 17 pints of blood to save him.
Nazir’s relatives said that when he was injured, they pushed him on a cart to a hospital. Doctors gave him first aid and attached two infusion cords to his arms. They then boarded an ambulance, where the police raid occurred. During the raid, they tore away his infusion cords as well. “The ambulance driver fled and seeing the patient sinking, one of our relatives drove the ambulance to Srinagar,” his uncle said. Though he was operated on for damage to his lungs and liver, Nazir died ten hours later. “When we were driving the corpse, two civilians sought a lift and instantly hijacked the ambulance and drove it to the Police Control Room in Srinagar, where they kept the body for three hours,” his uncle added
In another incident not long after, another Jammu and Kashmir police officer chased a speeding ambulance in Pampore, at the outskirts of Srinagar. It was stopped near the hospital. Civilians accompanying the injured told the cops that the young man was very critical and may not survive till Srinagar, so they wanted to approach the Pampore hospital. But the cops accompanying the officer did not listen to these arguments.
They barged into the ambulance, dragged the attendants down and thrashed them publicly. At least one attendant was forced to board a police jeep and driven away, video footage recorded by citizens has shown. Then, a doctor revealed, the officer wanted to take the patients as well. “We resisted and somehow managed to put the critically injured man in another ambulance of our own hospital and somehow asked the driver to drive to Srinagar,” the driver, who wishes to remain anonymous, said. The patient had lost more than an hour between the ambulance being stopped, and his rescue and transfer to another ambulance.
The man was being driven from Neehama village in Kulgam. Identified as Azad Ahmad Thokar, he had been hit by bullets. Doctors operated on him at SMHS, but hours later he succumbed to his injuries.
Amir is also from the same village. A student in class ten, he received a bullet in his hip when there was a demonstration in the village. When he was being driven to Srinagar, the ambulance was stopped twice, once by soldiers at Chawalgam and then by the CRPF at Samgam on the highway. “At both the places, we all were beaten, including the injured,” one of the relatives attending to Amir said. “We begged that they will die of blood loss but they beat us for some time, called us names, and then let us go.” Amir’s elder brother Zubair also survived two bullets.
Critical time lost
Doctors at SMHS, which manages most of the trauma load every time unrest takes hold of Kashmir, said that some of the injured could have survived if they reached the hospital in time. Dr Kaisar Ahmad, the principal of the state-run medical college under whom all associated hospitals, including SMHS, work, said that several of the injured died because delays in reaching the hospitals led to massive blood loss. “Chances of trauma patients losing the battle for life become greater if they lose the golden hour,” said Dr Javed, a surgeon at SMHS. The ‘golden hour’ is the time between receiving a trauma injury and reaching the hospital, which could be an hour or even less.
Obstructing the movement of ambulances is always a major issue during unrest, especially when firearms are being used on the streets. The situation in 2010 was so grave that ambulance drivers, after being grievously injured in various incidents during the transportation of patients, decided against driving to Srinagar during the day. Only once soldiers manning the streets and roads would leave for their garrisons would ambulances drive to Srinagar from other places. The unrest in 2010 lasted the entire summer and killed more than 120 young people, mostly in the 20-35 age group.
While most of the peripheral hospitals, especially in Pulwama and Anantnag, managed part of the injured locally, the bulk of them had to be transported to Srinagar – mainly to SMHS, Bones and Joints Hospital and the Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) at its twin campuses in Soura and Bemina. By Friday, July 15, the state government informed thehigh court that they have received 1,882 injured in the hospitals, of whom 595 were hit by pellets and 125 by bullets. But injured people have not stopped coming to any of these hospitals. Between Friday and Saturday evenings, almost 90 injured were admitted to SKIMS and SMHS, taking the number of injured much beyond 2,000.
Ambulance drivers suffer
While transporting all these people to hospitals, ambulances and ambulance drivers have suffered immensely. The government informed the court that 93 ambulances were damaged during this period, mostly from Pulwama, Anantnag and Kulgam – three South Kashmir districts that have seen the mostunrest. Most of the ambulances do not have window panes, so drivers wear bike helmets while behind the wheel.
“We do not expect any mercy from paramilitary men, but we are shocked when the state police men beat us and damage our ambulances,” an ambulance driver working for SMHS said. “Every time we carry an injured (person), we have to get down and remove the barricades and the drop-gates on the roads, pass the vehicle and restore the same.” Normally paving the way for an ambulance should have been the job of the people who man these drop-gates, said a driver who has been driving an ambulance for more than 25 years.
Unlike the 2008 and 2010 unrests, drivers said there are lot more instances in which the stone-pelting youth have started hitting the ambulances, especially when there is only staff inside, coming back after delivering a patient or driving with medical supplies. “A few of us were injured in these attacks,” the driver said. “Why does not the society take charge, why cannot locality elders and the Imams in the mosques educate stone-pelters against attacking ambulances?”
There are lot of voluntary organisations working in the health sector. They have ambulances, but they use them for intra-hospital transfersonly. “It is difficult to ply outside Srinagar,” an NGO manager said.
So deep is the hate that runs through the region that cops and civilian injured are being admitted to separate hospitals in Srinagar. In peripheral hospitals, however, they share the same medical facilities.
Given the curfew restrictions, the movement on highways is strictly for emergencies. But the dominance the paramilitary has been given on the roads during the dayled to a shocking incident on Friday. A young bearded man was driving his widowed diabetic mother to a Srinagar doctor along with his sister. They were stopped at a highway bridge; the man was beaten and arrested while the young woman was dragged into a vehicle with her clothes torn. It was by chance that the police detected the incident and rescued the molested and stripped woman. They made an effort to get the man released and succeeded.
“Our heads hung in shame,” the police officer who heads the post that rescued the family told a local news gathering agency. “They threatened to kill us when we saved the girl who was accompanying her ailing mother and brother. These men (CRPF) crossed all the limits while dealing with the trio.”
Police profiling patients
Interestingly, once injured people reach the hospital, they face another mess: alleged police profiling. People said the police got their details, sent these details to the relevant police stations and registered a case. In certain cases, they alleged, the cops even arrested people from hospital beds. This is not a new practice, but it has created a strange situation in Srinagar hospitals. First, the family or friends attending to the injured forced the doctors to give them numbers and avoid listing their personal information on the records. Second, they attacked journalists and obstructed their work, fearing they might be “working for the police or the Indian media”.
Haseeb Drabu, state finance minister, admitted that he had noted this issue when he visited a hospital. “I stopped the practice there and then in Pulwama,” he said. But the fear of being profiled still dominates in SMHS and SKIMS where, last week, two cops were beaten by the crowds.
This alleged profiling caused a tragic incident. Police charged a protest and brutally killed a mason in Tengpora, a city periphery. Another young man, Hilal, was beaten on his head with the butt of a rifle. When his family drove him to the SKIMS, frightened of being arrested, they told hospital staff that Hilal was injured in a roadside accident. “They told us privately the entire story but begged us to register it as a road accident,” one middle rung hospital manager said. “Then he died a few days later.”
A senior minister in the government said that they have many reports about the wrongdoings of forces on the ground. “We will tackle things once situation improves,” the minister said. He refused to get into the details of incidents.
Masood Hussain is an editor at Kashmir Life.