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PESHAWAR, Pakistan — On Dec. 16, armed men from the Pakistani Taliban scaled a wall outside the Army Public School. Six and a half hours later, more than 140 people were dead, including 132 children, most shot in the head. Three teachers were murdered, one set on fire in front of her students. The country mourned. The attack, claimed by the group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, as the Taliban in this country are known, was justified by a spokesman as retaliation for the army's operations, launched in June, against militant hideouts in North Waziristan.
Four days later, the funerals are over, as are the three days of national mourning that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced for all government institutions and schools in the country. Anger simmers, and grief is all too fresh, but for the residents of Peshawar, the school attack is just more of the same. More extreme but still just the latest in a string of assaults that have ravaged the city over the past decade. Last year was one of the worst for Peshawar, with twin suicide attacks on All Saints Church, which killed 105 people on Sept. 22. Two bombblasts that week raised the death toll to nearly 160.
Now, victims’ families say, their only hope for justice is in the hereafter. With no expectations for accountability from the government, the only way to deal with the pain is to believe that the story is not yet over, that those who died are martyrs and in fact not dead but alive — just in another world.
“My son is a martyr. I am proud of him,” says Sumaira Siddiqi about her son Ahmad Elahi, whom she refers to as her beautiful gift to God.
‘He couldn’t wait to start driving. He would keep telling me I should get him a car, and knew how much each cost.’
on her son Ahmad, 14, who died in the attack
Ahmad, 14, was a ninth-grader at the APS. His entire class perished in the attack, except for one student who didn’t attend school that day. Ahmad is best remembered for his many passions, his mom says. He was passionate about politics and his religious beliefs and was very passionate about cars. “He couldn't wait to start driving,” Siddiqi says. “He would keep telling me I should get him a car and knew how much each cost. I would ask him how he knew all these prices, but he just did.”
The teenager had lately been a disappointed fan of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, whose party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is the ruling party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Siddiqi says Ahmad would listen to all of Khan’s speeches and would know exactly in what city he would be organizing a rally that day. “Lately, he wasn’t too happy with Imran Khan and would say he lies too much.”
Ahmad, the second of her three children, was the one whose parent-teacher meetings she loved to attend. “Last time I went to his school for a meeting, his math teacher came to me and said, ‘You're Ahmad's mother? Oh, he’s excellent,’” she remembers. He ranked second in his school exams last year. “I have a picture of him receiving a cup. His dream was to be a doctor.”
No fan of vegetarian food, Ahmad loved chicken and “would save his money and order a pizza or burger at home. His favorite was the 240-rupee Zinger burger at KFC.”
His younger brother Mohammad, a student in the seventh grade at the APS, is among the unhurt survivors. Nothing about Mohammad seems to reflect what he has been through. Flipping through photographs on his mother's smart phone, he casually mentions he jumped over a wall and escaped when the attack came.
As Mohammad gets up to show the women in the room — his aunts and neighbors who are there to offer their condolences — a picture of his deceased brother, a bullet casing falls from his jeans. “He keeps this bullet in his pocket all the time. He picked it up there,” Siddiqi says.
That Peshawar’s children are now disturbingly familiar and even comfortable with violence is startling, but it’s a city where major landmarks are now blast sites and reporters are now a familiar sight. When playing football on the street in the Faqirabad neighborhood, where Yasin Asif and Gul Sher lived, children react to any new person they see by quickly pointing toward their house. “This is the house of the students who died,” they say.
Yasin and Gul were best friends and cousins, each the only son in his family. They were so close, they seemed like brothers, and when the boys were younger, they would dress the same, remembers Yasin’s mother. “They lie in the same grave now. The tombstones just mark what side which brother lies. We didn’t get any time with them. There was so much blood, we had to bury the bodies in barely half an hour. But his face was still beautiful.”
Yasin was 15 years and 15 days old when he died. For his mother, he had only recently started growing up. A student of biology, he hoped to be a doctor one day. “He was so tall — 5 feet 8 inches.” With two younger sisters, Ayesha, 6, and Fatima, 1, Yasin was their protector.
‘Before 2002, we did not even know what the military looked like, and now there are security check posts all around the city.’
“He didn’t want to go to school that day, but I said, ‘How will you get first position if you don't go to school?’” his mother says. “Eventually, I told him he must go because Ayesha cannot go alone. He went with Ayesha, but only she came back.”
By her side sits Gul’s mother. The two are sharing a blanket, maybe to ward off the cold of Peshawar’s winter or maybe the chill of grief. Gul’s mother is deathly quiet, but she listens intently to all that is happening around her. “Have you seen my son? In the pictures being circulated on Facebook, he’s the one in the glasses,” she says. As relatives discuss how brutally some of the children were slaughtered, all she asks is, “How can only six or seven terrorists do that? There must have been more.”
Nobody seems to believe the number of dead or the accounts of the incidents that the authorities have revealed. Some residents are saying the number of children is much higher and that the military is concealing information. Many believe that the death toll is definitely over 200, with the attackers numbering 20 to 25.
For a city that has learned to quickly move on, the mourning is not yet over. Utility poles in Peshawar are lined with funeral announcements, and residents say every neighborhood is mourning someone. Everyone is talking about the city’s lost children.
“We have never witnessed such brutality before. I don’t know who to blame. I guess we are all to blame for what happened,” says taxi driver Hamid Khan, who talks about about how quickly Peshawar has changed. “Before 2002, we did not even know what the military looked like, and now there are security check posts all around the city.”
Durreshahwar Zaman, a teacher at a law college here, did not know any of the victims, but on the Friday after the attack, she went to pay her respects to the children buried at the Cantt graveyard, next to the school.
“This city has seen so much, but this time the tears just don’t stop,” she says. “It’s the fourth day today, and all our homes are mourning … This time they killed our children. This time the dead cannot be forgotten.”
She believes nearly 400 people have died. “My friend’s cousin died, and his number on the list of deceased was 211. How can they possibly say 141 are dead? How come we don’t know anything about the sons of colonels, brigadiers, majors? We have only been told about children of civilians.” (While the Army Public School is open to everyone, the school is owned and run by the army, and many children of military personnel attend.)
Zahoorullah, who only goes by one name, a gravedigger at Cantt, says he saw at least 200 dead bodies. “There were little children among the dead. I picked up the bodies myself.” He has already prepared graves for more children to come. Two were filled just a night before, and six others lie empty.
There is a sharp contrast between the accounts of witness and the official figures that were released. Details remain murky because most of the survivors were moved to the army-owned and -operated Combined Military Hospital, which has come under fire for not having yet issued a final list of the deceased. Journalists, too, have not been given access to the hospital and to date, the number of injured remains unclear.
Though people have little faith in what military authorities are saying, the posters outside the main gate at the APS that appeared after the attack express their love for the army and support for the North Waziristan military operation Zarb-e-Azb. Candles lining the tops of walls outside the school have melted, painting the plaster with lines of wax. Men sit in a circle reciting the Quran, while students recount the day’s events again and again to reporters — what is being called the most brutal attack in Pakistan’s living memory.
There is numbness in this recitation. The survivors talk about death, bullets and suicide bombers with expressionless faces. There are no tears.
“You are braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem,” says a poster put up by the students of the University of Peshawar outside the school. As they speak out against terrorists on national television, the city’s children seem to have taken the message to heart; meanwhile, say residents in certain neighborhoods, when prayers were said for the victims in local mosques during afternoon namaaz on Friday, the loudspeakers were quickly turned off.