Surviving the Peshawar school attack
What happened at Peshawar's Army Public School (APS) on December 16, 2014, was unprecedented in terms of the feelings of disbelief, horror and helplessness that it evoked not just in Pakistan but around the world.
More than 130 children lost their lives when seven gunmen belonging to the Tehrik-i-Taliban attacked the school. Over seven months have passed since the gruesome events of that day but fear still engulfs the students of the school.
They think their school can come under attack anytime.
“This is a mental health epidemic,” says Sharmeen Khan, a Karachi-based psychiatrist who, along with a team of therapists, visited Peshawar after the APS attack.
“When such trauma is not dealt with in an appropriate manner, it can lead to mass psychological disorders in the long-run. To protect against this eventuality, psychological first-aid is required in the short-run.”
While some victims suffer from survivor’s guilt, the rest are struggling with post traumatic stress.
For 16-year-old Talha, survivor of the APS attack, emotions have paved way for a whole new level of strength. At least overtly. What he feels internally is hard to gauge.
“In the beginning I was injured and I did not realise the severity of my injuries. When I came back home from the hospital I realised that this was the true face of the demon known as extremism. It filled me with sadness but I eventually overcame it and did not exaggerate my grief,” narrates Talha, recalling the day three bullets struck him, one of which pierced his jaw.
For some, the flashback of the incident is unbearably thorny while others, such as Talha, have become noticeably immune to it.
“When I came back home I told myself it is alright and then everything slowly became normal.”
“I have definitely become stronger after this incident. Initially, when I came home I had this constant fear but slowly I realised I’m safe now.”
In a sharp voice he reflects upon life after the incident.
“My parents stood as a huge support system for me. I have a large social circle and I am also mentally and physically strong so it wasn’t that big of a problem for me,” he says casually.
But his posture lowers as he clasps his hands to recount the events of December 16.
“We were sitting in our class when we were asked to go to the auditorium. A doctor was setting up charts and apparatus, and he had just started his lecture when we heard gunshots outside. They barged in through the auditorium door, with guns pointed at us,” says Talha.
“There was a hail of gunfire, and we could feel the heat of the bullets as they whizzed past us. We ran to take cover behind the auditorium seats. I was shot at directly, but was conscious. All of a sudden we heard them scream ‘Allah O Akbar’, and we took this second of respite from the gunfire to run towards one of the doors. We exited the door and went to an adjacent school wing. We waited there for 10-15 minutes before soldiers from the Pakistan Army came and rescued us.”
Talha has had sleepless nights thinking of the attack. But more than the blood and gore, there is something that constantly wears him down despite assurances that he is all right.
“When I was shot at, I got up and ran. I saw my friends breathing their last breath and gasping for air, drenched in blood. I was torn between helping my friends and saving my own life but I heard my teacher yell my name asking me to leave the building immediately.”
Upon discussing the impact of the incident, he makes it a point to clarify that the incident has affected him in a way that he is not scared anymore.
“I can fight these things again. All these things are normal now for me,” he says with much certainty.
“I was even called in for psychological therapy but I did not go. I do not need it. I am sure I don’t need any sort of psychological help. We discuss this with our friends daily and it has become a part of our every day conversations,” he says.
Struggle and post-traumatic growth
The massacre of masterpieces: A teacher’s lament
“The militants checked classroom after classroom for students hiding under desks…” the newscaster revealed on Pakistan's longest day.
As Jennifer Marshall sat in front of her television screen in Karachi, an unfamiliar terror gripped her.
The impact of the Peshawar school attack had paralysed the entire nation. But the grisly assault and its aftermath made Marshall tremble.
She is a teacher.
For over 30 years, the Karachi resident has educated some of the brightest minds in Pakistan in her various postings. She has taken great care to nurture each student individually.
Peshawar's blood-soaked uniforms filled her head with images of her own pupil.
“It’s when I heard that the militants rampaged through the school, classroom by classroom that my mind restlessly wandered through the long hall at the school where I teach. It has long rows of rooms lined up on either side,” Marshall says.
“In each child at APS, I could see the numerous students I have taught over the 30 years of my career.”
Eight months after the attack, unlike many Pakistanis who, as a coping mechanism, keep suppressing the toll of terrorism, teachers continue to bear the same inundating fears they experienced on that cold, fated December morning.
“While being cautious is a general way of life in the country now, the entrance of every school has changed in a way it never should have,” she says.
Barbed wire, roadblocks and metal detectors greet the innocent minds coming to school everyday, she adds.
Parents trust teachers to nurture their children, to influence them and guide them. Schools represent innocence and wisdom. But, all of that has changed now.
Several doctors have raised concerns over a lack of psychological support and treatment for citizens affected by acts of terrorism in the country, however, there has been no mechanism to help Pakistanis deal with the enduring cost of human lives.
In the weeks and months proceeding the Peshawar attack, the government should have set up psychological rehabilitation programs in schools throughout the country. Private schools adopted security measures but ignored the mental effects of the events in Peshawar.
Teachers and students were left to deal with their fears themselves.
Trauma has multiple components: events, experience, effects.
The 'effects' of a particular 'event' have never been fully understood or addressed in Pakistan. Panic attacks, anticipatory anxiety, hyper-vigilance are terms never explored in dealing with the aftermath of terrorism. An individual does not have to be physically a part of an 'event' to suffer the traumatic outcomes of it.
Marshall recalls falling physically ill on hearing the news of the APS 10th grader Ishaq Ameen, who succumbed to his injuries two months after the attack.
“I had been praying for Ishaq. He had to pull through.”
“It’s hard to explain how we teachers feel towards our students; these precious blank canvases are brought to us with great trust. We use different hues, different strokes to define and amplify each child’s potential. And with resolute commitment, we begin the task of creating a masterpiece. Ishaq Ameen was a teacher’s masterpiece too,” she says.
The state of education in Pakistan is by no means satisfactory. A teacher often has to play multiple roles to fill the void left by the government.
“In an environment where education is so fragile, a teacher has her work cut out. Our relationships with our students thrive on mutual learning, it thrives on discourse and ideas and dreams. A teacher is eternally marked by each students' individuality,” she states.
Marshall's voice grows steady with conviction as shes cites the example of Tahira Qazi, the headmistress, and Saeed Khan, a teacher at APS.
The two individuals paid with their lives attempting to rescue their students. Survivors of the APS attack have stated on record multiple times that all 900 students present in the schools at the time would have been killed, had Mrs Qazi and Mr Khan not braved the militants.
“I wasn’t surprised to hear about the bravery of the two. It’s hard not to see your students much like you do your own children; long after we retire, we remember their names. The pranks they play on us. We’re often amused by their over confidence and we’re ever ready to catch them when they trip over it. We are the first witnesses of their journey into the real world. Our students remain our most profound accomplishments,” she says with pride.
“Staying true to their profession, Mrs. Qazi and Mr Khan did what was most natural thing to them; protecting the children they had nurtured.”
Recalling her first day back at school after the APS attack, she says there was a renewed determination at how she looked at life now.
“As I entered the classroom, 32 blank canvases greeted me with respectful anticipation. My heart ached as I realised the monumental task that lay ahead for every teacher of this nation. The task of bringing back our children from the terror of APS; the task of rebuilding the shattered dreams that we, both student and teacher, collectively shared in.”