Pakistan's schools of sorrow

Published December 16, 2014
An injured student lies in bed at a hospital following an attack by Taliban gunmen on a school in Peshawar on December 16, 2014. -AFP
An injured student lies in bed at a hospital following an attack by Taliban gunmen on a school in Peshawar on December 16, 2014. -AFP

They began the day in their school uniforms, they ended it in burial shrouds.

On the morning of December 16, 2014, it was exam time at the Army Public School in Peshawar and most of the students were inside the examination hall where they would take their tests.

The night before, there must have been much cramming, much last minute memorisation, much anxiety about how they would fare.

Their minds would have been focused on doing the best they could, scoring the highest marks. They did not expect to die.

Also read: 'I saw death so close': student recalls Peshawar school carnage

The assailants who came to kill them scaled a wall adjoining a graveyard. Once inside, they fired in the schoolyard dispersing the students that remained there.

Then, they came to the examination hall.

To save themselves, the students hit the ground, their young bodies aligning with the earth to evade the bullets that sought their bodies. But the killers had come to kill; according to eyewitnesses, there was no hurried or haphazard showering of bullets.

The killers killed one by one, pointing their guns at one child and then another, watching their bodies flinch and fail. Later, when the corpses would be counted, they would number over a hundred.

Also read: Militant siege of Peshawar school over, at least 141 killed

In the aftermath, the children are gone, silenced and buried. The country is in mourning, stunned again, shaken again, angered again at the barbarity that lives within and spawns such death.

Outrage is an easy emotion in Pakistan and after a decade of terrorist attacks almost a habit; when the tears dry up as tears do, little changes.

Were we not locked into this cycle of act, outrage and forgetfulness, the imminence of an attack such as this one would have long been acknowledged, its probability seen as high, its likelihood necessitating preparation and security.

There were numbers that told of the possibility; a report issued by the Global Coalition for the Protection of Education earlier this year noted that in the years between 2009 and 2012 there were 800 attacks on schools in Pakistan.

Not one or two, but 800 warnings of the carnage to come, boxed away, set aside, pushed away to the back pages of newspapers, the recesses of consciousness.

In pictures: Tears, loss and despair for our children

In the years after the bombing of Hiroshima, the Japanese created a memorial to the victims. Painstakingly, they collected the bits and pieces of the belongings left behind by the dead so they would be a reminder to the living of the near limitless depths of human depravity.

The most touching, the most poignant and the most heartbreaking of the collection are the belongings of the many dead children; schoolbooks with work half done, lunchboxes with food half eaten, last uniforms worn in final moments.

Those children are dead too, but at least they are remembered and memorialised; theirs is an immortal innocence that speaks decades later and chastises humanity for its criminal apathy.

In Pakistan’s surfeit of victims, young and old and all innocent, no such retrospection can be expected. In the escalating horror of each attack, there is no room to enshrine the particularity of each victim, one schoolboy’s face frozen in death mixes with another teacher’s gunned down corpse.

We look away, we sigh, we shrug and we move on.

In the meantime, the attacks continue, a panorama of pain for Pakistan, a country identified by its maimed and massacred schoolchildren.



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