There is always that one life-turning incident that haunts you. For many, it could be for life. December 16 this year marked the fifth anniversary of what remains one of the most gruesome tragedies of all time and certainly, the most horrific one where schoolchildren are concerned. Nothing comes close to the hell that was unleashed on unguarded schoolchildren and staff of Peshawar’s Army Public School (APS) that day in 2014.
I have vivid memories of the day, waking up from a nightmare, turning on the television on impulse, and spending the next few days, weeks and months wallowing in unspeakable grief. The reason? It didn’t take much to relate to it. As a parent, it’s your worst nightmare: your children going to school and not coming back. It may happen in other parts of the world; indeed, it has several times even in far more secure First World countries like the United States with its history of random shootings (mostly with a deranged gunman at work), but nothing quite like what happened in Peshawar.
In the capital of Pakistan’s northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, half a dozen militants stormed the school and butchered students, teachers and staff indiscriminately, emptying several rounds on even the already dying or dead before setting the valiant principal of the school, who tried to save as many students as she could, ablaze in a targeted operation whose sheer depravity left the South Asian nation reeling from a trauma whose scale knew no bounds. TV anchors broke down during bulletins and live beepers, and programmes had to be halted every now and then because the emotional current simply spiralled out of control. Many of the medical staff at the hospitals in Peshawar themselves collapsed at the sight of what they saw in emergencies.
Just to get a gist of the human side of the tragedy, sample this from a post one compiled after the first day:
n A grief-stricken mother who went to school every single day for three months with her son’s school bag, only to be brought back home each time by her distraught husband. She’s now bed ridden.
n A mother who regrets she didn’t give her son 25 rupees (less than 25 cents) to nibble junk food that day.
n A mother wallows in guilt for cajoling her son — reluctant to go to school that day — so that he could chill. Now, there’s a chill down her spine.
n A father despairs he admonished his son to go to school after he twice demurred. So near, yet so far!
n Hiding from a militant, he lied to his mother on phone that he was fine when, in fact, he already had a bullet in his chest.
n He (15-year-old Dawood) overslept (skipped school) and survived: all his classmates of Grade 9 didn’t and have gone to sleep forever.
Then, there was the case of a father, who, a year after the tragedy disclosed that the family hadn’t cooked food at home since they lost their son. Another said he couldn’t bring himself to eat the foods his son savoured.
I remember writing this first post at the turn of events, which is still fresh in memory:
“Today was the kind of day, when your perspective on — and about — life changes. I looked at my children differently, if you know what I mean. I’m sure many of you would have, too. And felt somehow relieved they were not where hell was raised this morning.
But wait a minute. The children who died today could just have been ours — HOW difficult is that to surmise. Ah, that changes the equation completely: terribly, strenuously, painstakingly unimaginable, right? Well, then, try even imagining how the grieving parents would have felt in Peshawar tonight. Life will never be the same again for them; it will be a forever, achingly haunting pain they will have to deal with for the rest of their lives.
So what are we going to do about it?
Will we dishonour their memories of their children and our memories of their children by sitting on our haunches and resigning ourselves to fate and move on like we mostly have until now or rise and FORCE the stakeholders to change and eliminate the last militant and their like on the land without discrimination?
Short of this we all will be just waiting for the bell to toll.”
To their credit, the government, the opposition and the political parties united with the armed forces to agree on a National Action Plan, which led to a decisive military operation against terrorists across Pakistan. But even braver were the schoolkids, who, rejoined the school a month later with even greater resolve and vigour.
Having said that even though the students, their teachers, principal and the staff are remembered every year with an outpouring of rich tributes, it is hard to get past the bare knuckle reality of what happened that day — the day that shook the world. Five years on, Pakistanis of all shades and opinion are still wont to get emotional about the tragedy.
Community reached out to a few expatriate Pakistanis for their opinion.
Riyaz Bakali, Director of The Next Generation School in Doha, tried to make sense of the horrific episode. “Education is one of the building blocks of nations. I feel it was a soft target for terrorists. However, targeting such young kids was an extreme step by even this yardstick”.
Away from the emotional trauma, Bakali thinks their martyrdom is what paved the way for Pakistan to attain peace. “The graves of our youth became the steppingstone to reach the hideouts of these cowards. History will always remember these brave children as game changers,” he concluded in reference to the decisive cleanup operation that Pakistan’s armed forces launched after the APS tragedy to break the back of terrorism.
Mohsin Mujtaba Rizvi, chairman of Pakistan Professionals Forum Qatar, felt it was like humanity that failed on the day.
“When I first heard the news, the event was still unfolding. I was shocked, it was horrible. It felt as if humanity had failed. As a Pakistani I was annoyed, enraged and ashamed at the same time. We had failed our children. We paid a very high price for extremism that had turned into a Frankenstein of terrorism. Verses of (poet, author) Faiz Ahmad Faiz were echoing inside me:
Tujh ko kitnoñ ka lahu chahiye ai arz-e-vatan
jo tere ariz-e-be-rañg ko gulnar kareñ
Kitni aahoñ se kaleja tera thanda hoga
Kitne aañsu tere sahraoñ ko gulzar kareñ
(O Motherland, the blood of how many do you need?
That blood which will impart a rosy hue to your pale cheeks
How many sighs will soothe your heart?
How many tears will cause your deserts to bloom?)
Shehar Bano Rizvi, writer, speaker, photographer, but above all a mother, encapsulated the horror like only a mother can.
“A massacre in a school? Six gunmen opening fire at innocent kids? Why? How can any human being have the heart to pull that trigger on children?”
A longtime resident of Doha, she recalled how the APS tragedy left her utterly speechless and heartbroken.
“Partly, my faith in humanity died that day along with those innocent children. A horror unheard of for any parent! When we send our kids to school, no-one in their wildest imagination can think of them being subjected to such barbarism,” Shehar Bano said. “My heart as a mother, a human still bleeds for the families of the victims and the survivors who witnessed such an act of horror. My prayers are with them”.
The tragedy still disturbs the deep recesses of the mind of many.
Omer Azad, who is in the construction business, and has spent a better part of his life in Doha, says, “A shiver runs down my spine whenever I think of that moment. Without a shadow of doubt it remains the darkest hour of our country, if not the modern world. Never had I conceived that humans would do such barbaric things. They were all kids with shining dreams. They were all like angels. To think that they went to school and their bags, shoes and uniform dipped in blood returned to their homes; their parents and loved ones — it still gives me chills thinking about that moment.”
Rida Omer, a housewife, looked askance — even five years later. “They had goals to achieve. They had dreams to conquer and a future they could not see. Their hands were to make paper planes yet they left behind history. They had a life to cherish, a life that was meant to be, but they sacrificed it for generations to come and generations to see.”
“Today, I pay tribute to all those flowers that withered in the gaze of another bloom. May their souls rest in peace,” she said with melancholy.
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