“There are 50 bodies of children lying in the school.”
“That can’t be possible.”
“My security source says he has seen them.”
It is a conversation I cannot forget.
It was still early afternoon on Dec 16, 2014 and I was on the phone with DawnNews’ then bureau chief in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Militants had stormed a school in Peshawar and, as the siege stretched into hours, the death toll climbed.
The newsroom was overwhelmed. We were reporting 20 dead when suddenly, in one particularly haunting moment, the figure jumped to 80. At the end of that blighted, bloody day, the body count was a stomach-churning 144. Most of the victims were children.
But, despite the horror of it all, newsrooms across the country did their jobs as they always do: they reported the death toll, the number of militants, the time it took to clear the school.
The Peshawar correspondents seen on television channels worked with a stoic pragmatism. When I looked at the faces of young sub-editors doing live updates in my newsroom, I did not see tears.
Being a journalist in Pakistan prepares you very quickly to be tough. Bombings, targeted shootings and public lynching episodes are not uncommon. Even the average news consumer is at least somewhat desensitised to violent killings.
But this was different; too atrocious to be relegated as just another chapter in the country’s bloody history.
These children and the dreams they cherished in their short time on this earth couldn’t just be recalled as a number. Their stories had to be told.
What made them happy? Who had they aspired to be? It was an event that compelled you to look past the death toll and really tell the story.
And so, the idea of Dawn.com’s virtual memorial for the APS victims was conceived. And intimidating as it was, months later, with 144 stories, it was born.
The most daunting task fell on the reporters. Summoning the strength to speak to grieving parents, spouses and siblings of young victims and their teachers is a heartbreaking experience.
In a span of six months, our reporters spoke to the relatives of 119 students, 12 teachers and 13 other staff members.
They learnt that while two teachers were wives of armed forces officers and 40 children were sons of in-service and retired military officers, the remaining 102 victims had no military association.
The meetings left them shattered.
“When we sat face to face with the relatives of the deceased, it felt like it was Dec 16, 2014 again,” they said.
Months had passed since the tragedy. But walking into the homes of those left behind made it all too real. In an email they sent to me at the end of the project, reporters Abdul Hakeem and Hassan Farhan Tariq described the emotional upheaval.
“It was terribly difficult for the families. At times, we would ask a question and the parents would go silent. We would ask again, as kindly as we could, but they would break down. Sometimes one parent, usually the mother, would weep herself into incoherence. We had to be patient. After all, they had lost the light of their life.”
Many times, it was impossible for the correspondents to control their own emotions. They wept like children.
“When we met parents who lost two children or their only son, we were overcome with grief and couldn’t stop the tears. We cried with them.
“At one stage, we discussed amongst ourselves how we felt like we had lost our minds. It was the most distressing experience of our lives.”
Back in Karachi, a team of journalists edited the obituaries before they were uploaded to a webpage. It was a harrowing journey to tell the story of these children as it ought to be told.
Six-year-old Khaula Bibi who was brutally killed on her first day of school; the boy whose parents had to bury him the day of his birthday; and the young man who loved the meals prepared by his mother; each was special, a perfect son or daughter for their parents.
Looking at the photographs was harder still. Pictures of children smiling with trophies, posing with their pets, flashing a peace sign made them look so alive.
Very often, I saw members of the editing team shake their heads, exclaiming, “This is so unfair.”
But it finally came together. Readers wept and rejoiced over stories of little Khaula who loved school; Aimal the artist; Fahad, who helped friends escape before he was gunned down — 144 lives full of possibilities.
Through 144 stories, we connected with the mother, the father and the sibling of the APS victims.
We wept and prayed.
And we vowed never to forget.
Visit the memorial for the APS attack victims here.