PESHAWAR: For Shaheen Afridi, a weekly visit to the city’s Nothia graveyard has become a compulsive ritual since December 16, 2014.
A year after his brutal murder, the mother of Mobin Shah Afridi races to the grave of her eldest child and only son to have a conversation that has no listeners. “My heart, my son,” she says tenderly in Pashto, as her fingers tug at the tall ferns growing out of his grave. She has brought with her a framed photograph of her boy, a handsome 16-year-old with dazzling green eyes and the onset of a distinctively teenage stubble. She does not come here to pray, she says, but to talk to the child she buried. It is the day before the one-year mark and her tears do not stop.
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At a house on Mall Road, another mother Shahana can relate to this distressing urge to go to the graveyard. “It is the highlight of my week,” she says, talking about her visits to the final resting place of her 15-year-old Asfand. “It’s where I find peace.”
Across Peshawar, there are over 100 mothers bonded by an unimaginable pain that struck them all at once: the terror that befell the Army Public School last year and robbed them of their young children.
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“I did not even know our children were friends before that day,” Shahana confesses, looking at the dozen or so women around her. They are at the home of Hassan Zeb’s mother Nasira, who is cooking lunch in a large metal pot. The fragrance of stewed meat and vegetables pervades the ground floor of the modest home, where upstairs, her guests battle the chill with sweetened tea and buttery biscuits from the nearby bakery.
“Can you believe we still don’t know each others’ names?” one mother exclaims. “I didn’t know her name was Farahnaz till just now,” she says, gesturing towards the mother of Uzair Ahmed. “We call each other ‘Shaheer ki ammi’, ‘Uzair ki ammi’ like they would in the olden days. These are the names of our lost sons.”
The chatter is loud and animated. Zargham’s mother recalls a happier time when she would prepare his breakfast tray with fried eggs and toast. Uzair’s mother joins in, recollecting how her son loved malai and would lick his plate clean when she served it.
The conversation abruptly takes a dark turn. They talk about the day of the attack; the hours of waiting and not knowing; frantically scanning the list of injured survivors at the Lady Reading Hospital; and finally identifying the lifeless bodies at night.
“I instantly spotted his green trousers,” Shaheer Khan’s mother says.
“Uzair was wearing a white vest. I remember chasing him to wear a sweater that morning… it was so cold that day,” says Farahnaz.
A brief silence follows. It is interrupted by a question. “People say I should be proud because my son is a martyr. Would any mother willingly trade places with me so she could feel this ‘pride’?” Her companions nod slowly; they know her heartache.
Before that day, most of these women were strangers to each other, crossing paths briefly when they picked and dropped their children at the school. Now they are a family, knit together by the suffering and rituals that define their endurance.
Nasira’s house is a mutually favoured meeting place. “We call Nasira our nani, because we can walk into her house unannounced, without hesitating– just like one does at their grandparents’ homes,” says Shahana.
There are days where they discuss dreary thoughts about sleepless nights; when they feel their child is calling out to them.
But there are also light moments to ease those heavy hearts, where the mothers deliberate on monthly commemorations for each 16th since last December. Planning meetings are called; menus discussed, photos framed and kissed. They hold each other and share a sadness no one else in their families will understand. They nudge each other to live for their other children.
Even though they are shattered, together somehow they have summoned the will to go on; to wake up each morning; to ask after one another and find comfort in this new family.
Published in Dawn, December 16th, 2015