Pakistan is close to my heart – but Taliban school attack shows there's a new … –

Pakistani soldiers inside the school a day after the attack in Peshawar

Pakistani soldiers inside the school a day after the attack in Peshawar  Photo: A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

By Mishal Husain

7:05AM GMT 20 Dec 2014

When the soldiers opened the black gates of the Army Public School to us on
Wednesday morning, my first impression was of the uncanny silence that hung
over the grounds of what used to be a thriving establishment, educating more
than a thousand boys and girls on its sprawling site.

Instead, as BBC cameraman Usman Zahid and I walked up the path leading to the
school buildings, there was only the sound of birdsong – the soldiers who
had been clearing the site of bodies and explosives now stood silently by,
watching us pass.

On the broad flight of stone steps beneath the main school auditorium was the
first evidence of the terrible events of Tuesday, December 16 – bloodstains
on the ground – and from then on, every step I took showed me more of what
its students and staff went through on that dark
day when 132 children and 16 teachers died
. Chairs turned upside down,
blood-spattered school books on the floor, lone shoes, broken spectacles,
and then further inside, the burnt-out offices where the final stage of the
assault took place.

is a country that is close to my heart. It was home to my parents before
they came to live in the UK, somewhere that I spent many happy holidays as a
child and an adolescent, and later somewhere that became a part of my
professional life. I have been dispatched there by the BBC at short notice
on several occasions – the coup that brought Pervez Musharraf to power in
1997, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, the killing of Osama bin
Laden in 2011. But this week’s journey was unlike any other, revealing a new
depravity, where children are not only caught up in violence but directly
targeted at close range in a place where they should have felt safe.

As I stood inside the school with the Pakistan Army spokesman, General Asim
Bajwa, I asked him about the ease with which the gunmen, all wearing suicide
vests, appeared to have entered the premises. ”This is not an army
institution,’’ he said. ”This is a school run by the army for the children
of its soldiers and of civilians. They were all our children.’’

General Bajwa described how the commandos who arrived on the scene steered the
militants towards one area – the central administrative block – in order to
contain them there. This was the location of the worst damage, with one wall
blown away and others punctured with bullet holes and craters probably
caused by ball bearings exploding out of the bombers’ vests. The office of
the headteacher, Tahira Qazi, was a blackened shell, a mass of charred
papers and possessions on the floor.

Over the next two days I was able to piece together what I saw of the school
with the accounts I heard from survivors and witnesses. Erum Asad, a
mother-of-two who teaches at a nearby school, rushed to the scene when she
heard the gunfire, thinking first of the children from her own extended
family enrolled at the army school. What she saw were children as young as
three running out, begging her to save them and call their parents. She
rescued at least 14 children, including her niece, getting them into
vehicles and to safety. But two older nephews died and when we spoke she was
clearly afraid at the prospect of her own children returning to school.
”The politicians aren’t the ones affected by violence,’’ she said. ”It’s
people like us that pay the price.’’

Her city, Peshawar, the fabled gateway from the Indian subcontinent into
Afghanistan and Central Asia, had already paid a heavy price even before
this attack, with previous targets including the airport, hotels, a church,
and the historic Qissa Khawani or storytellers’ market. Few Westerners now
come here, which is a great loss because Peshawar is steeped in legend.
”The history of Peshawar is the history of empires,’’ says the Pakistani
novelist Kamila Shamsie, whose most recent book, A God in Every Stone,
celebrates its old city and the original ancient settlement of Caspatyrus.

The bloodied ceremony hall at the school a day after the attack (AFP)

What I witnessed in present-day Peshawar was a wave of revulsion against the
Taliban, as the horror of the school massacre became clear. The chants on
the streets were not about the West but avenging the attack on Peshawar’s
children – ”blood for blood’’ – and support for the Pakistan Army’s
anti-Taliban operations.

When I was last in Pakistan, recording a series of reports for the Today
programme in March, the seeds of the current military operation in the
tribal areas were being sown. A new army chief was in place, and when we
went to interview officers and cadets at the military academy in Abbotabad,
they spoke of wanting to ”finish’’ the Taliban. There was always the risk
of reprisals in urban parts of Pakistan, but no one could have imagined the
terror that would be unleashed on the Army Public School in Peshawar,
because of what the Taliban called the killing of their women and children
by the military.

A further cycle of violence is what many in this country now fear, but
vengeance is a powerful emotion. On our second morning of broadcasting from
Peshawar, we watched a group of young men approach the school in smart green
blazers and ties. They were students, who knew that their school was closed,
but who wanted to make a statement by turning up at the gates in their
uniform. ”We are not scared,’’ Aakif Azeem, 18, told me. ”You can take
away our teachers, you can take away my friends, but you can’t take away my
identity. This school is my identity.’’

Supporters of Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) attend a anti-Taliban rally
in Karachi (EPA)

Aakif is in his final year of school and had the narrowest of escapes on
Tuesday. In the early stages of the assault, one of the gunmen shot at but
didn’t hit him. Aakif calmly described how he ducked under a wall and then
hid a classroom with other pupils, before realising that his younger brother
was in the auditorium that was being sprayed with gunfire. He had to be held
back by one of his teachers and only discovered much later that his brother
was one of the few survivors of the auditorium, where the bodies of 100
children were found.

”We want our revenge,’’ Aakif said. ”They killed innocent children who had
nothing to do with the war on terror. I saw bodies everywhere. We were
breathing in blood.’’

No human being, let alone a young person or a child, should have to live
through something like this. But Aakif has grown up in post-9/11 Pakistan,
in a troubled city where violence is a daily threat. ”When I heard the
gunshots,’’ he told me, ”I knew what to do.’’

It is that sentiment that for me underscores how far removed today’s Pakistan
is from the country I used to know. In this Pakistan, security is one of the
few businesses to have thrived in the last decade, few foreigners live here
with their families and Western diplomats barely have a chance to see
anything of the country they are supposed to experience.

And yet – the old Pakistan is there, too. It’s there in the hospitality, the
generosity in even the poorest homes to feed and look after guests. It is
there in the charity work that supports the needy in the absence of a state
safety net. And I think – I hope – it is also there in the emotions I
witnessed in Peshawar – the desire among Pakistanis to put this terrible era
of terrorism into the past, and reclaim their country.

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