The most difficult thing to shoot in Kashmir…
During nearly two decades of violent Kashmir conflict, I have covered fierce gun battles, between Indian soldiers and Muslim militants, suicide bombings, rebel attacks, massacres, protests, mayhem, violent elections and disasters.
But the question that always comes to mind is “what is the hardest to shoot?’
I always remember protests or riots, clashes between stone throwing protesters and gun-toting Indian troops. Stress levels quickly rise as me and my text colleague, Sheikh Mushtaq, realize that our assignment will not be easy whenever we go out, mostly on Fridays, the day when Muslims offer congregational weekly prayers, which turn into weekly protests against Indian rule in Kashmir.
There is literally no place to hide and shooting is nearly impossible when angry protesters take to the streets and rocks rain down; Indian troops retaliate with tear gas shells, rubber bullets and many times with live ammunition. Most of the time we, with protective gear and camera equipment strapped to our shoulders in backpacks, are stuck in the narrow streets of downtown Srinagar as impatient crowds and ruthless troops battle for hours.
Blood is always spilled in the streets of Kashmir where tens of thousands of people have been killed in two decades of an anti-India insurgency.
It was a pleasant and beautiful day in Srinagar, a city of over one million ringed by snow-capped Himalayan mountains, but tear gas brings bittersweet tears to my eyes and rocks sometime make me bleed. I clutch my camera, adjust the focus and aperture and keep on shooting masked rioters and police replying with slingshots, teargas shells and bullets. A rock came towards me, I ducked but it hit another cameraman. He was bleeding lying beside me. On many occasions, I had to drop my camera and take care of injured reporters and photojournalists. Several times even I was not lucky.
Years back I was hit by a tear gas shell and then enveloped by a cloud of dust and tear gas smoke. As the tear gas shell exploded between my legs and tore my calf muscle badly. Mushtaq from a distance was looking at me helplessly as the rattle of gun fire followed screams and cries for help. I was bleeding and fell unconscious. After hours I found myself in a hospital and later spent months in bed missing the thrill of photography.
When Kashmir last year faced some of the biggest anti-India protests in nearly 20 years, photojournalists faced the wrath of security forces and angry protesters. Many of us were beaten up by riot police and demonstrators, protesting Indian rule in the disputed region. They break our cameras and sometimes beat us with batons and gun butts.
It is painful and disturbing but when I see people writhing in blood and dying with bullet wounds, my pain disappears and I feel guilty when police do not allow us to photograph the tragedy. I feel disappointed when they stop us after ambulances and hospitals are attacked.
People often ask “what is the most difficult to shoot in a conflict zone?” I always say “protests or rioting.”