Two days after the Peshawar incident, as I conducted a special Urdu program at Radio Pakistan Islamabad, I had renowned dramatist and artist Anwar Maqsood on the telephone line.
When asked about his reflections on the brutal massacre at Peshawar school, Anwar was simply unable to respond. His voice grew heavy and it sounded like he was crying; all he could say was: “On 16th December 1971, we lost our past in Dhaka, and on 16th December 2014; we have lost our future. It seems that my own children have been killed”.
Like Anwar Maqsood, there was a unanimous outpouring of sympathy and grief mixed with anger from across Pakistan.
As my mind struggled and repeatedly failed to absorb the dimensions of the brutal act, it felt like I had been robbed of my pleasant memories associated with this school; replaced only with bombs, bullets and blood now.
Thirteen years ago, I was one of the children studying at the same Army Public School, Warsak Road.
I was there from March 2001 to 2003 in grades 6 and 7.
Like most children at that age, life was just about two things: work and play. Teachers were honest and capable, and studying with them was quite fun. Twice, I was awarded medals and certificates for my excellent academic performance.
It was during that time that the tragic 9/11 attacks occurred, followed by the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, with Pakistan joining the much trumpeted ‘War on Terror’. How much devastation this would mean for the region, no one had imagined.
In the days after the US attack on Afghanistan, when our classes resumed, my class fellows had mixed accounts.
The majority of my friends were infused with stories of Osama Bin Laden and his comrades' heroism, holding Al-Qaeda in high ranks.
Some even quoted their parents while narrating the heroic adventures of the Mujahideen dating back to the Soviet Jihad of early '80s.
A few had made-up stories of the weapons the Mujahideen possessed, and related these legends to an astonished audience in the class.
The teachers of our class, too, recalled the days of "glory" when the ‘fighters of Allah’ had ransacked the Soviet ambitions in Afghanistan. They prayed that they will emerge victorious this time too, against the US forces.
Some of my teachers even went to the extent of cursing the former Army Chief and President General Musharraf, despite being employed in an Army school, while others lambasted the US for vicious designs against the Muslims.
Also read: Our denial killed children in Peshawar
Religious sentiments have always run high in the north-western part of Pakistan, which has served as a springboard for Jihadis for many years. After Kabul, Peshawar, unfortunately is still regarded as the chief breeding ground of radical Islamist elements; the poison of radicalism still prevalent widely among people there, irrespective of their level of literacy.
I remember sharing the news of the US invasion of Afghanistan with my driver, on my way to school one morning. He said that the Pakhtun and Muhajideen would "teach them a lesson" as they did to the Russians.
It was the same with my Qari sahib (Quran teacher). He had a close affiliation with the Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islam and thus held the Mujahideen in high esteem. His support still continues.
This rampant spirit of extremism compounded with anti-US sentiments and the moral support for the Mujahideen later accounted for the victory of the coalition of religious parties Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in the 2002 general election.
I remember remaining quiet during such debates, with no stories to offer. That was so because I was not told any such stories at home. The only thing the 2001 Afghan war brought into our home was a feeling of apprehension and constant concern of what would happen in our immediate surroundings.
In retrospect, that day as we the students of Class 6 chatted over the ‘War on Terror’ with our teachers joining the ‘Jihadism’ debate, no one had the slightest idea that the flames of this deadly war would one day engulf the students sitting on those same chairs and desks that we sat on; that blood and bullets would mar the same walls we hung our class projects on.
I wonder what the conversations have been like, had someone from the future come in and told them what would happen 13 years later.
How old were the victims of this school attack back in 2001? Three? One? Just born?
Read on: From Peshawar, with tears of blood
Besides the death of children in my extended family as a result of the Peshawar tragedy, the death of Mrs Tahira Qazi – the courageous principal – was another shock. She was related to me in more than one way.
During my school days, she was the Vice Principal. I remember her taking rounds with the Principal and attending to students’ concerns diligently. Importantly, she was the mother of my childhood friend, Ahmed Qazi. We had studied together since kindergarten.
I recalled my childhood visits to Ahmed's house at the Army Flats, Peshawar Cantt. His mother was a welcoming lady with a pleasant personality and a beaming smile always present on her face.
After her sad demise, I visited Ahmed in their native village, Landi Arbab of Peshawar. He was as brave as her mother and received me with fortitude.
I had no words of condolence to offer.
As I sat with Ahmed and offered dua, I was still taken aback by the grave circumstances that had led to our meeting after so long.
Unfortunately, we are far from recovering from our greatest loss: the mindset which accommodates these radical elements.
Unknowingly, we have all been caught off-guard.
Overwhelming confusion leads to a chaotic societal setup as a barrage of different voices keeps clamouring from different quarters. Pocketing dollars while ignoring long-term consequences has brought us to a point where it is becoming impossible to tell right from wrong.
Take a look: 16/12/14: Never forget
Today, we have a group of people protesting against the Lal Masjid cleric while the heads of religious political parties are decrying any action against masjids and madrassahs.
The state has the toughest choice to make. The seeds of Jihad and Islamism sown three decades back have grown into trees so strongly grounded that they cannot think independently of it.
December 16 brought for me the stark realisation that Pakistan has indeed become a hard place to live in; that it is much more than a cliche. If I were born a decade later than I was, I would be among the victims of last month's carnage.
While all this goes by and the government and military work on the National Action Plan, work needs to be done on creating an alternative narrative and changing mindsets across the country.
More than military combat, we need ideological warfare, and on the right, clearly defined target.
Decisions, even when urgent, should account for long-term concerns and common interests rather than vested interests.
Consensus is required across all strata of society – not just among politicians and soldiers, but everyone from civil society and the intelligentsia to religious scholars.
Unless counter terrorism measures include a massive ideological shift, the desired results will never be achieved.
Already it is too late. We must not wait any longer.