Playing wheelchair basketball to survive in conflicted Kashmir

In Kashmir, wheelchair basketball is giving many people hope, a chance to live, to fight back against long odds, and above all, a chance to be equal. Tragedy might have struck them at different stages of life and in different forms, but the game joins them together.

“Life doesn’t end, it only transforms,” said Insha Bashir, a 27-year-old wheelchair basketball player from Kashmir.

Insha fell from the second floor of her under-construction house in the Budgam district of Kashmir. A year earlier she was diagnosed with stomach ulcers. She felt light-headed, vomited blood and fell down. Insha suffered spinal cord injuries. She was 15 then.

Insha did her graduation but will to go on, to keep fighting was getting weaker. A sense of being a liability to her parents, reinforced by the talk about her disability, took an emotional toll.

“With every dribble, we push life to the next level. I am not different from anyone. We are equals, rather better than others. We are fighters,” Insha said.

Basketball changed the game, released the energy and she became confident. She has played all the formats of the game.

She is not the only one stories of pain, loss, and hopelessness are shared among countless peers working to navigate a. society, they say, that has not evolved to accept disabled people as equals.

Tariq Ahmad, Kunzer Batpora

Tariq Ahmad, Kunzer Batpora, loved driving cars. He had left his studies to support his family and began working as a mechanic. A truck crashed while he was working under it. It was 2013.

He was rushed to the hospital, medication was administered, months were spent in the hospital, and surgeries were done. His spinal injury was so severe that Tariq could not stand up again on his own legs. He was engaged to be married but, after the accident that ended. He was still undergoing treatment with physiotherapists when tragedy struck again – his father passed away in 2016.

“I had joined the players a year before my father passed away. Emotionally I was getting strong and bolder,” Tariq explained.

After the fateful accident, losing father shattered Tariq but, “it was the sportsperson in me who wanted to accept the challenge.” He was engaged, after the accident that ended.

I was ready to fight back. I took the responsibility to run my family and look after my sisters.”

Tariq runs a grocery shop to make ends meet for his family but takes time to go out and play. He has participated in the national-level competition of wheelchair basketball.

Life for this group have athletes has transformed, not ended. Channelizing their anger, frustration, chaos, into the game. “It’s always the dribble of life. Fight, focus, cross the barriers, and gain the points.”

“One thing that I always miss is driving. I was passionate about it,” he complains.

Tabassum Farooq

For Tabassum Farooq, her father did not hesitate when she asked for permission to play.

“Go and play. There is nothing that must stop you,” Tabassum confides that, to her, was a major confidence booster.

Tabassum, 26, was three when her medical condition deteriorated. ‘Education was non-negotiable for my father,” she says.

Now pursuing her Master’s program, she was introduced to the game late. But she rushed and topped the north zone trials.

“It enables you to think, you release the energy. Gives you strength to go on with life, but not as someone with a disability but with greater ability,” she said.

Nusrat Rasool

Tabassum’s story is shared by Nusrat Rasool. She too began facing health problems as a child. She is 27 and pursuing a Bachelor’s degree.

“If life plays a game with you, play the Olympics,” she comments.

Life for 33-year-old Mohammad Rafi Parray changed in 2010 when he fell from the second floor of his house. He was rushed to the hospital, where he learned he had suffered a severe spinal injury.

“My life did not end, it only changed. My ambitions cannot end with this. I only have to change the way I do my things,” Rafi believes.

Mohammad Rafi Parray

He was introduced to the game while he was undergoing physiotherapy at Voluntary Medical Society in the summer capital of the region in Srinagar.

“People ask stupid questions that disturb you, but as a sportsperson, it gave me strength. Fight it out,” he says.

Voluntary Medicare Society in Srinagar runs a medical rehabilitation center called Shafaqat Rehabilitation Centre. Shafaqat means Compassion in Urdu. All these players had been to VMS, where they were first introduced to the game.

“I remember the day, Insha was carried by three persons (her relatives) and put on a table. We had organized an outreach program then. She was totally dependent, totally silent, not speaking a word,” Dr. Bashir Ahmad, an administrator at VMS, told FanSided.

Wheelchair basketball in Kashmir is about health — physical and mental

Dr. Bashir says that their program includes identification, and rehabilitation of people with various kinds of disabilities, including physical. It was during one of these programs they met Insha and some of the others.

“She was with VMS for a year or so. As a procedure for all, like in the case of these players is to measure the intensity of the injury. Then proceed as to what point we have to move them forward, emotionally as well as physically,” said Dr. Bashir.

Wheelchair basketball was introduced by the VMS in 2014 and many got connected with it. As Dr. Basher said, Insha was reluctant to speak and counseling was offered to address growing depression To doctors at VMS, emotional health was just as important to address as physical health.

“The story of all these athletes is the same. Shattered emotionally, feeling too much weight of society, of family, of dreams, and of self-expectations. Once you give them an emotional and psychological boost, push them, you see results, even they themselves won’t have expected it. Maybe that’s why we don’t call them disabled but people with special abilities,” said Dr. Basher.

“They became part of the game, or the game became part of them. Any game you take it, it gets the best of you out. Competitiveness challenges you, you forget your surroundings, and the adrenaline rush makes you empowered. This changes you, your attitude towards your own self, how you see your life, and your behavior towards others,” Dr. Bashir said.

“You will see in all of them, they are changed, people. If you talk to them, they will confess it.”

To Dr. Bashir, the biggest concern was when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world in 2020 and India went into a lockdown.

“It was a time when we were thinking that we cannot let them stay locked in, because that will take them back into memories and things might get worse,” he said.

They made attempts to stay open, follow protocols, had to face hiccups and scrutiny but they managed to traverse through.

Gowhar Ahmad

“I have had suicidal thoughts. People saw me with sympathy that was agonizing, and painful. I had become a subject not a human being,” Gowhar Ahmad said, who lost his leg to an accident in 1993. His leg was amputated and since 2000, he has used an artificial limb. For seven years after the accident, he used crutches to walk.

Even though it was a bit of relief for Gowhar to have an artificial limb, difficulties were there. He would regularly hear people saying that his life hds ended, he could not do anything, and was a liability to his family.

“Those things were killing me inside. I would fight with my family on tiny issues. They knew what was going inside me and they held me all through these years,” Gowhar said.

“In 2017, I changed my limb, this time it was an upgraded version, where I can sit, walk properly and will not be seen as limping or dragging my foot,” this, Gowhar said, was the first step of change. “It did affect, I could walk, and if I entered a market no one would know I have a problem.”

The same year, while he was getting his artificial leg at VMS, he was introduced to wheelchair basketball. He joined. Since then, Gowhar has played in two competitions at the national level.

“The game must not stop. It should be taken to all the people who have disabilities like us. If not wheelchair, any game but they must get involved,” Gowhar said.

Akhter Ahmed Hajam

It’s not only about the players who are professionally into it, but those yet to be part of the team also feel elated.

Akhter Ahmed Hajam, 24, has yet to be a member of the team but has been playing the game as an exercise to strengthen muscles and build better reflexes.

“You forget every problem around you, winning games becomes everything,” Akhter said, who suffered a spinal injury after he fell from a bridge in his village, Rafiabad, a far-off area in North Kashmir’s Baramulla district. It was February 2020.

“I will become a player and compete. I used to be a cricketer. After the tragedy, I will play basketball. I won’t stop playing,” Akhter said. “It’s the game that lets us relax our nerves, sweat out all the problems and build strong character. There will be more challenges ahead, we have to be ready and face them.”

Why We Play features stories about the power of sports to bring us together, overcome obstacles, make positive change and reach everyone. Read more here. 

This article was written by Iqbal Kirmani, a freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times, Caravan Times and more. 

All photos by Adil Hussain, an independent documentary photojournalist based in Srinagar. His work focuses on conflict, politics, social and daily affairs in Indian controlled Kashmir. His work has appeared in Time Magazine, BBC, ABC News, NRC Handelsblad, Mashable, LePoint, Qdaily China, Global Voices, The Wire, The Quint, among other publications.

Source: FanSided

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