By Safina Nabi, Srinagar
Thirty-year-old Riyaz Ahmed and his driver leave home early every morning. In a car loaded with essential supplies, they reach the Eidgah area of Kashmir’s Bijbehara district where 60 families await them. Riyaz explains that he wears a mask, gloves and takes proper precautions when he is out.
But he is riddled with anxiety.
Riyaz is a volunteer with one of the few non-governmental organisations in Bijbehara that are defying odds and reaching out to vulnerable sections of the Valley. There are many volunteers like him who still travel across Srinagar despite getting no help from the administration. They know that no matter how careful they are, infecting themselves and their families with a deadly virus is a possibility. But they soldier on.
Riyaz is part of a volunteer group that delivers medicines free of cost to vulnerable groups like single women and the elderly. Called Medical Maverick, the group was started by Asrar Ahmed Kawoosa, a medical representative who lives on the outskirts of Srinagar.
Medical Mavericks was founded on the idea that all available resources should be shared among those in need and that they should pull each other out of misery instead of waiting for handouts from the government, which more often than not, fail.
Kawoosa says, “Initially there was a lot of fear. But the idea of helping others kept me going. Once I started stepping out, many others joined me in delivering medicines throughout Srinagar. Recently though, we have faced some problems. The police broke my bike and refused to even tell us what we did wrong.”
Kawoosa gets 900 to 1,000 phone calls every day. So far, his group has successfully distributed medicines worth 60,000 rupees within Srinagar city for free.
And the trouble brought upon by the police has not demoralised him. He said, “I have faith in Allah and I am sure without His will, nothing can happen.”
The decades-long conflict in Kashmir has made life under lockdown particularly challenging. The healthcare infrastructure is in tatters, hospitals are short-staffed and on-duty doctors do not have protective gear like masks and gloves, leaving them susceptible to infections.
Humanity Welfare Organization Helpline (HWOH) is another non-profit group that has stayed on course in Bijbehara. Established by Javed Ahmed Tak in 2003, HWOH aims to help people with disabilities, orphans, widows, the elderly and the oppressed.
“I discussed it with my team and decided to provide nutritional food to disabled children,” says Tak.
They reached out to the district administration and requested travel passes for the volunteers but were disappointed. “The district administration of Anantnag approached us to join hands with them and expected collaboration without any assistance,” Tak said.
He has been working with disabled children for more than two decades and finds Kashmir’s social sector quite challenging.
But the work goes on. Just before he spoke with me over the phone, he had briefed a group of 15 volunteers about the plan going forward.
“Our volunteers had to go out without travel passes and got beaten up by the police. To be a volunteer in a conflict-zone like Kashmir is already risky and a pandemic like coronavirus makes it that much worse,” Tak said.
The district administration merely has a monitoring room to track people who have a travel history or have tested positive.
Everyone else is being redirected towards NGOs for help, Tak said. But it is not a collaboration. The volunteers did not even get basic safety training.
Tak believes that handling a lockdown in Kashmir is different from handling it in other parts of the world. This, according to him, calls for a special kind of training for the volunteers.
“We did two types of training. First, avoid arguing or opposing security forces. Second, maintain distance and not to shake hands. We did a mock drill before sending volunteers out,” he said.
Kashmiri residents sit at their windows as paramilitary soldiers guard the area from a distance during the lockdown in the state to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, April 26, 2020 (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)
Tension in the air became more palpable since the first confirmed case was reported in Srinagar on March 16, of a person who had travelled to Saudi Arabia.
Far from south Kashmir, in Budgam, Khairunnisa Aga remembers when the outbreak began. She was in Iran and flew back to Kashmir immediately.
She saw a stark contrast in the way things were being handled in both places.
When she came back a few things stuck with her like the modules of awareness, engaging students through online classes, delivering essentials, being sympathetic and helpful to patients who test positive, closing down mosques and gatherings immediately without facing any backlash from religious groups. But back home nothing was the same.
She explained how Iran was locked up after the first COVID-19 death. The government aired awareness programs on television and made sure essential items like food and medicines were delivered to everyone.
She said, “I kept thinking about what would happen to the people if the epidemic reached Kashmir considering the governance is poor.”
The thought of doing something remained with her for days, and she discussed that with her father, who runs a religious organisation, Anjuman-E-Sharie Shian J&K. But he is not allowed any social activity by the police as he is under house arrest since August 4, 2019. He’s one of the many religious and separatist leaders who were arrested or put under house arrest after the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which revoked Kashmir’s autonomy.
“My father suggested that the only way to help people would be to head the philanthropic chapter of Anjuman-E-Sharie Shian for the time being. I have never worked with my father’s organization before but accepted this immediately,” she said.
Khairunnisa Aga faced a different challenge: how to train volunteers for the COVID-19-related work.
She reached out to some doctors who trained volunteers in a short time. Now they have a mechanism in place with around 15 doctors to answer questions and queries of volunteers working on the ground.
Khairunnisa Aga, a Ph.D. scholar, is now heading Anjuman’s Quick Response Team for COVID-19.
“When we started awareness programs, people did not understand what we were trying to communicate. The population here is largely uneducated and it was quite a challenge. It took us many days to even create awareness.”
Some officials also took the initiative to provide help.
The District Commissioner of Srinagar, Shahid Chaudhary, initially took to Twitter to request NGO doctors and paramedics to register with them as volunteers. Within five minutes, there were 36 requests on the table.
While the initial goodwill fizzled out when they were harassed, intimidated and beaten up by the police, many of them continue to do the service they set out for.
Police also beat staff of Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC), some of who paid a heavy price for their service at this crucial time.
Ghulam Rasool Sheikh, a 45-year-old cleaning staff with the local government, suffered a heart attack after spraying chemicals in mosques and quarantine centers. He was admitted to Super Specialty Hospital in Shireen Bagh, Srinagar, where doctors put a stent in his heart.
Junaid Azim Mattoo, the Mayor of Srinagar, took to twitter on April 16 after SMC workers at different places were beaten up by police.
Mattoo wrote, “After the workers were beaten brutally by policemen in Srinagar, the matter was taken up with the concerned officials. They don’t even pretend to be objective in dealing with these repeated brutal transgressions.”
Mattoo also said he was taunted by a police official, who sought to remind him that his jurisdiction was limited to the municipality and that he should not be “overambitious.”