December 16 will remain a dark day in the lives of many, particularly the families who have lost their loved ones. Every parent in the world dreads the loss of their child and the worst has happened with the parents of at least 132 children.
The candle light vigils have commenced; text messages and Facebook posts and of course Twitter have flooded the social media. But is this going to make any difference in the lives of those who have suffered?
Not just every Pakistani but quite a few all over the world have been numbed by it. But Boko Haram keeps killing school children in Nigeria but we seldom have expressed our shock about it.
Choe En Lai at the time of Mao’s death had advised his nation to turn its sorrow into anger. Mao died a natural death but we have a lot to be angry about.
We as a nation have created this mess not just for ourselves but for the whole region and to an extent for the whole world.
Our whole tribal belt is littered with terrorists who are getting training and then fighting their holy wars the world over. You can obtain any kind of weapon anywhere in Pakistan but especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas.
We defend Madressah education but fail to realize that the graduates of these Madressahs will not be suitable for any jobs that may be of much use to the country and the world community.
We are shocked by the December 16 Peshawar massacre but will we feel the same kind of shock if a school is attacked by terrorists in India or Afghanistan. Almost every country in the world has territorial disputes, just like we have with these two countries. But settling disputes in such fashion is no longer in vogue.
We have no option but to oppose all kinds and each type of terrorism, regardless of where and against whom it is waged. And this has to go beyond rhetorical statements and must be proven by our practical actions.
It cannot be accomplished with marches, vigils, text, twitter and Facebook messages and press releases.
With the slaughter of at least 145 schoolchildren and teachers at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Dec 16, the Taliban took its grisly war against the state to a more horrific place.
The massacre by the Pakistani Taliban, which has carried out increasingly deadly attacks in recent years, should prompt the country’s military and political leaders to reconsider their conflicted approach to the insurgency that is threatening the state’s survival.
The attack, by seven gunmen disguised as paramilitary soldiers, departed from the recent pattern. In its violent effort to topple the government and establish an Islamic state, the Taliban has hit military installations, including army headquarters in Rawalpindi, a naval base in Karachi, an air base in Kamra, an airport in Peshawar, and the international airport in Karachi.
Like those earlier incidents, this was another security breach for the army and intelligence services. The terrorists knew that attacking the children, many of them from military families, would create greater fear and anguish. “We selected the army’s school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females,” said Taliban spokesman Muhammad Khurasani, according to Reuters. “We want them to feel the pain.”
During the eight-hour siege, the gunmen, who were eventually killed in the fight with security forces, opened fire on the students. Many of the children reportedly were killed by a gunshot to the head. A teacher was burned alive in front of the students. Afterward, the Taliban did not hesitate to take responsibility for the murders, saying it was in retaliation for the military’s offensive against militants in the North Waziristan tribal district in June, which the army claims resulted in the deaths of 1,800 militants.
The attack should help the army see the terrorist threat more clearly and strengthen its efforts to confront it or at least end support for militants in the region. But there is reason for skepticism.
Wedded to an outmoded vision of India as the mortal enemy, the army has long played a double-game, taking American aid while supporting and exploiting various Taliban groups as a hedge against India and Afghanistan, and ignoring the peril that the militants have come to pose to Pakistan itself. The extent of cooperation among those groups in the tribal areas has made that game even riskier; the Pakistani military has long provided support for the Afghan-focused Taliban, even while trying to fight the Pakistani Taliban in recent years. Intelligence experts say the army is still collaborating with the Afghan Taliban in fighting the government in Kabul.
To defeat the extremists, Pakistan will need more than a military strategy. It will need responsible governance and an acknowledgment by top leaders that they cannot contain attacks from one terrorist group while enabling another one.
Inside the intensive care unit, 17-year-old Zunain lay on one of the beds. He had been shot six times. His green eyes — the only parts of him that could move — flitted across the wall. His mother, Mehrunnisa, waved a Cadbury’s chocolate bar in his face. He blinked it away. His toenails were crusted in dried blood.
Outside the ward, in the cold frontier air, dead bodies were being wheeled out, covered in heavy quilts. Relatives passed through the marble courtyard, checking on their sons one minute, hiding from intrusive reporters the next.
“How do you feel after a tragedy like this?” asked a reporter. “How do you feel about your country, Pakistan?”
Mehrunnisa began to weep. The camera zoomed in closer. “I would like to say …” she said, “I would like to say nothing.”
Around 10 a.m. on December 16, 2014, seven militants strapped on suicide vests and marched into the Army Public School in Peshawar. They murdered 145 people, including 132 schoolchildren. A police officer at the hospital told us there was still a pen in the hand of one of the teachers when they recovered her body.
The Pakistani Taliban, who have claimed responsibility for the attack, targeted the school because it is where the sons of army personnel study. Six months ago, the Pakistani military shifted its strategy. After many years of supporting select Islamist groups to pursue certain strategic “needs” — propping up the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the ’80s, nurturing jihadists fighting against India in the ’90s, and protecting the good” Taliban following 9/11 — the army finally decided to dismantle the “bad” Taliban. On Tuesday, the Taliban retaliated by killing 132 schoolchildren.
The massacre has sent a wave of horror across the country.
For too long Pakistanis have lived in a state of denial about the presence of terror in their midst. When, in January and February 2013, twin bombings killed at least 180 Shiite Hazaras in Balochistan, the country’s response was: This is the unfortunate targeting of a minority group. When, in May 2010, an Ahmadi mosque was blown up in Lahore, killing around a hundred people, the response was: This is the unfortunate targeting of a minority group. When, in October 2012, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the face, the response was: This is the unfortunate targeting of a brazen schoolgirl. (She was widely labeled a C.I.A. agent.) Now, 132 innocent schoolchildren have been murdered. Will we find a way to “fit” this into a narrative, too?
Pakistan’s mainstream politicians have intentionally promoted conspiracy theories in order to thwart the possibility of developing a national consensus against terrorism.
PM Sharif has displayed startling confusion in the face of an increasingly aggressive, jingoistic public. The day after the massacre, Mr. Sharif did away with Pakistan’s moratorium on the death penalty, in an effort to rouse fear among the perpetrators. But his government is famous for such cosmetic measures.
Mr. Sharif’s party thinks nothing of forging election alliances with sectarian groups. Little effort has been made to create a counterterrorism narrative or to strengthen Pakistan’s flailing police and antiterrorism courts. The leaders of banned terrorist organizations live freely in Pakistani cities, appearing on talk shows and holding large political rallies. Pakistan’s education curriculum is full of religious exhortation, while madrasas proliferate, buoyed by Saudi largess.
Though there is little doubt that the Peshawar massacre has galvanized Pakistani society, the question is whether it can become a real turning point for a society plagued by violent divisions, culture wars and the strategic prerogatives of a powerful military.
After all, Pakistan has been here before. The country has suffered countless wrenching tragedies — the death of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, as well as attacks on mosques, markets and churches — only for rage to fizzle into nothing. And after the Taliban attack on the teenage rights campaigner Malala Yousafzai, a resulting backlash against Western support for her made her the target of smears and vitriolic criticism.
PM Sharif, seemingly paralyzed for much of the year by political opposition, has promised that this time will be different. He rushed to Peshawar as the school shooting was still underway. As global scrutiny intensified, Mr. Sharif vowed to eliminate the distinction between “good” and “bad” militants — a nod to the military’s decades-old policy of fighting some Islamists while secretly supporting others.
The army, for its part, has been buoyed by a wave of public sympathy, as many of the children killed at the Army Public School in Peshawar came from military families. And other forces, such as Karachi’s MQM party, have sought to harness national anger for local purposes.
“Crush Taliban to Save Pakistan,” read the banners at a large party rally in Karachi on Friday.
The tide of outrage has encouraged progressive Pakistanis, increasingly marginalized for years, to speak up.
Outside the Red Mosque, protesters wave placards mocking the chief cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who had enraged many by refusing to condemn the Taliban attackers during a television interview. “Run, burqa, run” read one sign, in a reference to Mr. Abdul Aziz’s attempt to slip through a military cordon in 2007 while disguised in a woman’s concealing garments.
A day earlier, when a few dozen demonstrators tentatively appeared outside the mosque, students there wielded staves to intimidate the protesters into silence. But by next day, the protest grew, and riot police officers waving truncheons interposed themselves between the two sides.The Red Mosque has become a factory of terror and hatred.
But for all the fighting talk, many are skeptical that the anger and tears of this week can make a sustained change.
The most intense anti-Taliban protests have been confined to the relative safety of social media such as Twitter and Facebook, where many users have posted solid black images as profile pictures. The extraordinary scenes at the Red Mosque would only be significant if they were replicated in numbers across Pakistan. Civil society is still weak and disorganized, riven by fear of the Taliban and the harsh gaze of the intelligence agencies. One does not see a joining up of the dots across the country. There isn’t the infrastructure, the will, the people with organization, ability and visibility to lead it. The wave of anti-Taliban sentiment is “probably just a blip,” he added. “Quite honestly, give it a month and it will have faded.”
The hard lessons of history underpin such pessimism. Although the Pakistani military has taken the fight into the Taliban stronghold of North Waziristan in recent months, there is evidence that Pakistan’s generals continue to play favorites among militant groups.
The “good” militants that PM Sharif referred to in his speech — those focused on Afghanistan and India, and who have longstanding ties to Pakistani intelligence — have continued to strut the national stage, even after the Peshawar massacre.
The most visible of such groups is Lashkare Taiba, which carried out the deadly 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Not only does its leader, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who has a $10 million United States government bounty on his head, live openly in the eastern city of Lahore, but he has also built a public profile as a media personality.
His brother-in-law, Hafiz Abdul Rehman Makki, delivered a sermon at a mosque in Hyderabad. After offering prayers for the victims of the Peshawar attack, Mr. Makki first accused NATO of sending “terrorists disguised as Muslims” into Pakistan, then linked the attack to India.
The group said that as he spoke, preachers from its charity wing fanned out across Karachi, a city of 20 million people, giving sermons at 45 different mosques — and propagating similar conspiracy theories.
Experts say it would be naïve to expect the Pakistani military to immediately disband groups like Lashkare Taiba, particularly given the fraught state of relations with India in recent months. But they also say that the underground ties between militant groups — which often share ideas, fighters and weapons — hopelessly undermine army efforts to dismantle the Pakistani Taliban.
“It’s that old story,” Hillary Rodham Clinton said when she visited Islamabad as secretary of state in 2011. “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbors.”
A cross-party political committee, formed by the prime minister, has promised to come up with a new strategy to fight the Taliban within a week. That is a hopelessly optimistic goal, by most reckonings.
The bigger worry, though, is that once anger over the Peshawar massacre has dissipated, the debate over militancy will once again be clouded in confusion and obfuscation — which, as recent years have shown, offers an ideal moment for the Taliban to strike again.
The situation has never been clearer. It is time to dispense with delusions of threats from “foreign forces,” and the idea that our problems are elaborate conspiracies hatched by others. Our government does not need to “talk” with the Taliban. It needs to prosecute them.
The Taliban attacked Peshawar’s Army Public School because, they said, they wanted Pakistan to feel pain. But Pakistan, the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz once wrote, is a congregation of pain. How much more sorrow can one nation bear?
“My son was my dream,” a grieving father said in Peshawar. “Today I buried my dream.”
Today, Pakistan feels, for the first time for so many of us young citizens a country empty of dreams.
Sorrow that knows no name
There is no word for a parent who buries a child. No equivalent of widow or orphan in any language that I know, we do not have the language to describe a parent who lays his child into the earth before his time. So with what tongue do we speak of the dead now? It is a sorrow too large to bear.
But with sorrow, there is anger in Pakistan today. There is anger at those who turned their eyes away from terror and let the cost be paid in human lives. There is anger at those who offered the killers silence, refusing to condemn them by name. There is anger at those who saw some expediency in the deaths of innocents. There is anger, there is anger and then there is shame.
There is shame to read of the three first aid instructors who had come to teach the children of Peshawar’s Army Public School about emergency aid when they were killed.
There is shame to know that most of the dead, most of the children killed, were shot in the head.
There is shame towards those whom we cannot apologise to, to the countrymen we did not, could not, protect.
Shahrukh Khan, 16 years old and asked to recount the horrors of the day told the press that the men who came to kill him and his classmates looked under the school benches, making sure they had left no one alive. Shahrukh, who was shot in both legs, stuffed his tie in his mouth to stop himself from screaming. What language do we have to reassure Shahrukh? When it comes to words, I have none.
Taliban, it bears noting, means students in Arabic.
What kind of student brings blood into a place of learning?
In the aftermath of the carnage in Peshawar, India announced a two-minute silence across their schools, a two-minute silence of grief and solidarity. Turkey called for a day of mourning. And in Pakistan today, we grapple with language. How do you eulogise a woman burned to death in front of her students? Who is a Taliban when so many public figures – anchor-men, politicians, and disaffected, alienated youth – trade in nothing but hate? How have we spoken this long of the terror we all face – the attack on the Istiqlal school in Kabul that killed six Afghans and injured many others, the women raped as they rode night buses in Delhi, and the children of Peshawar – without compassion for each other?
The poetry of remembrance In Pakistan today we read poetry in remembrance of the dead because in times of unquantifiable grief, we look for solace in the words of others.
Mohammad Hanif, one of our most fearless writers, wrote on Tuesday, “There is no need to offer prayers for the souls of the children killed in Peshawar. What possible sin could 16-year-olds have committed? Pakistan’s political and military leadership is requested not to worry about the children’s afterlife. When they raise their hands in prayer, they should pray for their own forgiveness. And they should look at their own hands closely, lest they be stained with blood.”
But it is Rahman Baba, the nightingale of Peshawar that I keep coming back to. “We are all one body,” the poet wrote. “Whoever tortures another, wounds himself.” ”
Where is the Appropriate Response?
A prompt and thorough probe into the children’s massacre in Peshawar should name all actors who facilitated the terrorists, directly or indirectly, to kill the nation’s future generation.
The government’s response to the horrific blood-letting in Peshawar should not have been reactive which ultimately it proved to be. It should have been well thought out.
This was no time to be playing to the gallery or diverting public opinion through sop.
Tinkering with the informal moratorium on executions offered no solution to the challenge that Pakistan faces. The flaws in investigation and the overall criminal justice system need immediate attention to ensure certainty of just punishment and not merely quantum of it.
It is also imperative that impunity is no longer be given to any individual or group that indulges in militancy or hate speech. This should include decisive action against the so-called banned extremist militant groups.
Details of all aspects of the incident that culminated in the tragic targeting of children in Peshawar must be shared with the people. This was far too catastrophic a tragedy for the information to be made available only through the news media.
The people desperately hoped that a prompt and thorough probe into this worst terrorist attack to befall the nation would name all actors who facilitated the terrorists, directly or indirectly, to kill the nation’s future generation. It should have identified the reasons for the intelligence apparatus failure to forestall the massacre. The investigation should have looked at all links in the support chain for the terrorists, not merely those in Afghanistan.
It is vital to acknowledge that our mercilessly butchered children and their parents paid in no small part for the consistently flawed orientation of the state and for pandering to streaks of intolerance promoted in the name of belief. It is now critical that a complete shift takes place from the past, all stakeholders come on the same page and end this constant blood-letting through a cohesive counter-terrorism policy. It is hoped that the latest vows of ending the traditional view of good and bad Taliban would be honoured.
It should be clear for all to see that showing respect and concessions to terrorists and terrorism only encourages more terrorism. There has been no sign of repentance for the complicity of those hobnobbing with the terrorists or of their eager apologists. A nation in mourning demands that the political parties who refuse to sever ties with these cold-blooded killers or hasten to their defence should have no title to representing anybody.
There is a consensus that the terrorism that afflicts Pakistan and Afghanistan has a regional dimension. If the two countries pull together to deny safe havens to Taliban and other terrorists they would stand a much better chance of exterminating this grave menace to humanity.
The people have been forced to ask what kind of a state we are that a handful of people come and kill our future generations in this barbaric manner. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that if we fail to act in an appropriate manner even in these grave circumstances it would be difficult to retain Pakistan’s name among civilised nations.
A few days after the Pakistani Taliban gunned down 14-year-old Muhammad Shaheer Khan, along with at least 144 others, at the Army Public School in Peshawar last year, his mother received the black gloves he had worn to school that day.
“It was cold,” she told me, about the last morning she had seen him.
It was cold, too, on the night we met, a year after the APS attack on the roof of the home of a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Aurangzeb, whose son was also massacred.
Mr. Aurangzeb has created an open-air room on his rooftop that functions as a shrine to his son and a gathering place for other mourning parents, who meet there twice a week. A poster of the photos of the murdered, mostly schoolchildren, runs the length of one wall. Green banners inscribed with Quranic verses hang on another.
When she received the black gloves, Muhammad Shaheer’s mother said, she asked her maid to wash them. “Suddenly, the maid cried, ‘There is blood in these!’ so I rushed to see. Blood was leaking from inside the gloves. I told the maid to get aside,” she said. “I will wash the gloves myself. This is my child’s blood, my own blood.” She touched her stomach. “You see, when my child was shot, he must have put his hand on his stomach to ease the pain.”
The other mothers mechanically wiped away tears.
“So I washed them myself, and the whole tub was filled with blood,” she said. “Then I took the bloodied water and watered my plants with it. It is my blood, so it will stay in my home.”
“But my tears have dried up,” her husband said. He is short and stocky, and introduced himself as a businessman. “Will you please let me talk for five minutes?” he asked, dragging a plastic chair closer to where I was sitting. “No one should interrupt me.”
“What has the government done for us? They have only given us medals. And these medals have gone black, just like their hearts. What operation is the Army doing? Which terrorists are they hanging? Why don’t they show us the photos of the dead terrorists? I would like the government to hang them in the square of this city, so I can go and spit on them. When my child and the children of these parents were killed, they took them to the hospital in Suzuki vans like cut-up pieces of meat.”
He pointed at our host. “Mr. Aurangzeb, here, his son called him from his cellphone after he was shot, to say: ‘Baba, bring me water. I am feeling thirsty.’ His father rushed to the school with two guns in his hands to kill the terrorists himself but he was not allowed in. Please excuse my language — I should not be using this word in front of women — but what have these bastards done for us other than give us rusting medals?”
Increasingly, the latter narrative was winning out. Its greatest proponent was Imran Khan, the cricket star-turned-politician, who insisted that the government engage the Taliban in peace talks instead of hunting them down because they were “our people, Pakistanis.” The Taliban have historic grievances with the United States, the argument went, and Pakistan is caught in the middle because of its greed for American dollars. The Taliban don’t hate us — they just hate our government’s foreign policy.
The Taliban, energized by the government’s willful impotence, began to kill with impunity. In the last 10 years, more than 50,000 Pakistani civilians — innocent men, women and children — perished in the war on terror.
Then the Taliban attacked the Army Public School on Dec. 16, 2014. For years, Pakistan’s security establishment had resisted decisively moving against the Taliban; it had, in fact, nurtured some of these terrorists as assets in Afghanistan. But now the army was humiliated — an army school had been attacked, army children killed. Suddenly, the Taliban were not misguided Muslims. They were murderers. Politicians, who had previously described the terrorists in painstakingly diplomatic terms, began to curse them. The Pakistani mind-set, which had veered from lamentation (when the Taliban attacks began) to fear (when high-profile politicians began to be assassinated) to denial (when “talks” gained traction) had changed: The people were now angry.
Significantly, the establishment delicately altered the notion of martyrdom. The word for martyr in Urdu is “shaheed.” To achieve martyrdom — or shahaadat — is to be elevated to the highest ranks in heaven for a patriotic sacrifice made on earth. The word had been reserved for Pakistani soldiers killed in war. Now schoolchildren and teachers who had been killed as they sat peacefully in an auditorium were all shaheed, because the Army said so. The message was this: Our children did not die in vain; they are the reason we have gone after the people’s enemy.
Today, a year has passed. The Army Public School has undergone intensive renovation. Brass plaques inscribed with buoyant religious verses adorn the grounds. New vigor has been applied to the operation against the Pakistani Taliban in the mountains of Waziristan. The names of dead terrorists routinely appear as front-page news.
But on the Aurangzebs’ rooftop, the posters of dead children flutter in the wind. The parents, who still feel that far too little has been done, cling to their memories. “My son used to bathe so well, so well,” says Muhammad Shaheer’s mother, “that when he would come out of the shower, shining white, we would say, ‘Look, it’s Katrina Kaif!’ ” — a Bollywood actress.
Another mother looks me in the eye. “There is one thing — one word — that has given me support in this difficult time. That word is ‘shaheed.’ I don’t know how I would have survived if this word did not exist.”
The attack ushered seismic change in State policies and the National Action Plan was immediately announced. However, the 20-point plan has yielded no result a year since its promulgation.
Though one year of this tragic event has passed, no judicial inquiry has been conducted into the security lapse at the Army Public School, which had already received threats before the incident. The incident was the outcome of negligence of Army officials, under whom the school is run, and their irresponsible attitude towards security. Soldiers armed with heavy weapons closely guarded the school building, located within the Cantonment. And yet, the Taliban militants were in the school killing students and staff members for more than half an hour.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government under Chief minister Pervaiz Khattak is equally responsible for the security lapse and resultant Peshawar carnage because the home ministry of KP province was pre-warned about the threat on school by intelligence agency.
There are still many unresolved questions. When militants were killing children and staff there were very loud cries and such screaming that can be heard from a distance. But, no one turned up to save the school children. One army contingent arrived after more than 150 children and staff members of the school, including the principal, were killed.
Instead of conducting an impartial inquiry into the criminal negligence, pressure was put on the government to amend the Constitution and allow for military courts.
After the massacre, parents of the dead children only received corpses and certificates; to date they have not received any compensation. Government officials made promises to provide free treatment to the injured and 2 million PKR in compensation to the bereaved families of the slain students following the attack. But they soon conveniently forgot the pledge made to the victim and their families.
The affected families and civil society are demanding help for the injured students. Sadly, parents of the children injured or maimed in the incident were left in a lurch when the KP government demanded that the parents to pay the treatment costs.
The survivors are not getting any special treatment at any hospital as announced by the government; rather they have been visiting different doctors on their own; no government representative has even inquired after their well-being. Even the compensation that few victims received has been insufficient to cover extensive medical and psychiatric treatment.
Though millions of rupees are withdrawn from the national exchequer each year for the treatment of parliamentarians in foreign countries, survivors of the APS attack are denied the right to medical treatment. The psychological impact shall forever scar victims, yet the State has done little for their rehabilitation. It is a sorry state of affairs if all such funds meant for the well being of victims of different catastrophes, whether man made or otherwise, end up in the wrong hands. Embezzlement of donated funds is a common practice in Pakistan.
On December 2, four of the perpetrators of the Peshawar massacre were hanged in a prison in the northwestern city of Kohat. This enraged parents who wanted to witness their deaths. The four convicts were tried in military court and their trial was held in camera.
Interestingly, all four were said to be members of Toheedwal Jihad Group (TWJ), a little known organization, and were charged with abetment in the APS attack. However, the fate of the actual attackers and their whereabouts are still unknown. Perhaps the government wanted to appease the protesting parents of the victims, who are demanding justice and inquiry into the deadly incident. One of the parents reportedly stated to Dawn newspaper, “the entire nation wanted to see these animals hanged publicly so others would not dare follow their example”.
Shuhada (Martyrs) Forum, a lobbying group of parents of the victims has demanded a fact-finding inquiry commission headed by a senior judge to probe the incident. The Forum has also called upon the government of Pakistan to make the findings of the commission public.
The government of Pakistan has failed to ensure the security of people, including the children, from attacks by terrorist organizations.
The school, where the attack took place, is situated within a military compound and where there is heavy military presence. Observers have already raised many questions regarding how such an attack could be carried out.