December 16 stands out as a day of ignominy in Pakistan’s chequered history. Much has happened since that fateful day in Peshawar. While the country breathes a cautious sigh of relief, it is hard to imagine the ordeal of those who died in the attack or of the families left behind to deal with their irreplaceable loss.
Death of a loved one at any time is difficult to come to terms with. Death of one’s child — and in such horrific circumstances — is incomprehensible.
People search for meaning for such acts. Was I being punished for something? Is this God’s way of telling us to mend our ways? Should I have been more vigilant? Should the school have beefed up security? Why my child? Why was such an innocent person killed? How can anyone carry out such a horrific act? Did my child suffer?
The APS tragedy is linked to the neglect of social development.
People deal with loss — even a loss of this magnitude — in all sorts of ways. Many carry feelings of guilt or blame others for the loss. Some seek solace in religion. Others withdraw from social activities and isolate themselves. Some children lose interest in their studies. Some parents develop clinical depression, as a result of which their other offspring get neglected and develop psychological issues themselves.
The one overriding question that we as a society need to address is this: what was the children’s fault to deserve such treatment? And the answer, as hard as it may be, is this: the children paid the price for what is described as ‘the sins of the father’.
It is important to see the link between what happened in Peshawar on Dec 16, 2014 and the ‘sins’ that have been committed since the country came into being. These mistakes formed the background to the APS attack. They include the neglect of social development, of health, education, housing, justice and law and order over the last six decades.
The mistakes also include the political failure of successive governments, both civil and military, to address the fundamental structural issues that has led to a violent culture and weaponisation of society that our children are exposed to on a daily basis. And mistakes also include the moral failure of society as it turns a blind eye to the abject poverty, hunger and injustice that afflicts millions of our children.
One year down the line what can we, as a society, do to mitigate the effects of such acts? Are there any lessons to be learnt from the horrific incident? Will raising walls, putting barbed wire on them, putting snipers on rooftops and beefing up security protect our children?
Incidents such as the APS attack, as tragic and horrific as they may be, can serve as turning points in a nation’s history. But for that to happen there has to be a brutal and honest admission of our collective failure — of the government, the politicians, of the security apparatus as well as civil society.
We must own our mistakes. We owe it to the memory of the dead children, to the families left behind and the children who survived the massacre.
One year on, we also need to think about building bridges. For simply raising the walls will not protect our children from the terrorists or the other ills that beset society. We need to build bridges to reach out to the deprived and neglected, the poor and isolated, those who don’t have enough to eat or to send their children to school and those who are victims of injustice and violence.
We need to ask ourselves some hard questions: why are 25 million Pakistani children out of school? Like the tragic children of APS Peshawar what crime have they committed to deserve a fate like this?
Forty-four years ago, we lost half our country due to the sins of our leaders. Sadly, no lessons were learnt then. A year ago, we lost more than 130 of our valuable assets, again due to the mistakes of our leaders. We need to stop and ask ourselves: what lessons did we learn in the intervening 43 years? What lessons have we learnt in the past one year?
Pakistan is a country with enormous human and natural resources. It is the world’s sixth most populous nation. It is bestowed with an incredible natural topography. We have many things, like an elected parliament and a largely free media, that many other countries in the region are struggling to achieve. Many of our countrymen and women have excelled in different fields and brought laurels to the country. But all this does not matter when we see the lack of leadership, the internalisation and institutionalisation of corruption and neglect of social development.
It is these ‘sins’ that need to be addressed to prevent future APS-like incidents and to protect our nation’s children.
The writer is a professor of psychiatry.
Published in Dawn, December 24th, 2015