“Please don’t switch the light on, my brother has just fallen asleep,” Waqar Amin whispered to us as we tiptoed into orthopaedic ward number seven where many of the young boys with wounds were being kept.
It was nearly two in the morning when I reached Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital after a school came under attack by gunmen on Tuesday. Waqar told us that two of his brothers went to the Army Public School and both of them had been shot – one in the waist and the other in the head. Waqar is a police constable and his family sent the boys to the military-run school for better education.
Despite attacks on schools and civilians, no one in Pakistan expected children would be massacred in the heart of one of the most secure areas in the city of Peshawar.
Waqar says he received a call from his brother asking him to come to the school as “terrorists” had entered the premises. He was scared and there was heavy firing in the background. Then the line disconnected and Waqar feared the worst had happened.
He rushed to the school where a few military guards were standing helplessly before help arrived. They saw children lying on the ground in the distance but no one could do anything for them as bullets whizzed past them when they tried to get close.
“Then the phone rang after I had called it a hundred times,” said Waqar. “My brother told me that he’s been shot and everyone around him was dead except for one of his friends. His friend was scared too and then my brother said I have to hang up someone is coming”.
It was one of the worst places to be. Waqar was standing outside the school knowing full well that his brother is in imminent danger inside and he could do nothing.
Waqar welled up as he described what went on:
Then the phone rang again. My brother said they were checking if anyone was playing dead by putting the hot barrels of their guns on their necks. Anyone who made a noise was shot. My brother turned his phone to silent and played dead too. There was so much blood coming out of his bullet wound that they didn’t bother to check if he was alive. This time he was really scared. He said, ‘don’t come to get me or they will kill you too. They just killed my friend’.
Waqar spoke to his brother a few times after that in brief whispers as they feared the attackers would return. Heavy firing continued with intermittent blasts. Both brothers feared each blast and each volley of bullets.
Several hours went by as the cat and mouse game continued between the attackers and the military.
Finally, the army said the school was clear. Waqar pleaded with the guards to allow him in but they said it was still too risky. He then borrowed an ambulance volunteer’s hat to gain access to the school. He says they waded through many pools of blood. It was gruesome bodies were scattered everywhere, freshly spilt blood of young boys and girls who should have been out in the playground.
Waqar then saw his brother being helped by a soldier, limping and bleeding…his face looked very pale. But he was alive.
Agony and anger
In the cold corridor of the hospital, people were sleeping on the uncomfortable chairs, perhaps exhausted physically and mentally.
Everyone we spoke to in Peshawar questioned how can human beings be capable of committing such barbarism. They expressed disbelief that people who claim to be close to Islam are capable of such depravity.
The doctors too sounded defeated. One medic told me that they were doing all they could for the wounded but for far too many they could do nothing. He said never in his life had he seen that many young deaths.
“I have worked in Lady Reading hospital for years and being in Peshawar we get victims of terror attacks on a daily basis,” he said.
It was nearly 3am so we headed to the hotel.
The unbelievable brutality of Tuesday morphed into agony a day later.
Small coffins were delivered to many cities of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. At least 142 funerals were taking place.
In Mansehra, six-year-old Khaula was laid to rest. She was at the army public school to sit for the admission exam. She had prepared for the competitive entry test and everyone was excited for her. I was told her mother was inconsolable.
Back in Peshawar among dozens of other families, Dr. Shabbir Awan buried his teenage nephew Abdullah.
He too had an agonising tale. He tried to stay composed, but burst at one point in anger and said: “If they [politicians] don’t have the resources to protect us, we accept it. But they too shouldn’t beef up their own security using tax payers’ money, buying them long motorcades and bomb-proof cars.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the military accompanied us, among other journalists, to Army Public School.
Smell of death
When you enter the school there is a certain smell of death. The blood stained floors and charred rooms are signs of the massacre which happened there. Classrooms are riddled with bullets. Books and shoes scattered after the mayhem. There are so many pools of blood.
Outside the school, someone had collected body parts, a picture no one can be prepared for regardless of their years of experience and training.
The tragedy jolted the government.
The prime minister and the army chief, two of Pakistan’s most powerful men, were in Peshawar and the bitterly divided politicians had all huddled together. Sensing that mere words won’t work, everyone in charge seemed wanting to prove that they were hurting too. The prime minister lifted the moratorium on death penalty for terrorism convicts and formed a national counter-terrorism task force to devise an action plan within a week.
Opposition politician Imran Khan ended his prolonged sit-ins and cancelled plans for anti-government protests.
And the army chief flew to Kabul with the intelligence chief to shore up support from across the border as they intend to hunt down the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban believed to be based in Afghanistan.
But Mulla Fazlullah’s men of the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) seem unfazed in the face of the increasing consensus against them. A TTP statement glorified the attackers. They sent me pictures of dead children who they say have been killed by the Pakistani army in military operations against them in the tribal areas.
For them, the slaughter of children, who included some from military families, is a way to inflict pain on the enemy in revenge.
A colleague of mine confessed: “It’s been a tough news story to cover as a journalist and as a parent.” As she took long drags of her cigarette, she said:
I don’t think I have ever cried this much while gathering news. I cried when I spoke to the families and I cried when I spoke to my newsroom
She told me that she kept thinking of her girls as she rushed out when the news of the school attack broke. She had said goodbye to them in the morning in another city but they were also wearing a school uniform the last time she saw them.
I spoke to a grandfather who used to wait in the lawn by his house’s front gate reading the paper and drinking tea, waiting for his grandchildren to come home and kiss him hello.
They would then run to their mother who’d been waiting to hear about their day, laugh at their silliness, be angry at their mischief, yell at them for not washing their hands and tuck them in every night. He lost his teenage grandson and says it’s an irreparable loss. To him the attackers have taken away bits of Pakistan’s future.
A friend of mine after the tragedy spoke to his son who attended a military school in another city.
The nine-year-old boy said he wasn’t scared but has been thinking of the last moments of the kids who died. He asked his dad, ‘would they have seen their dreams flash in front of their eyes and pop like balloons? Would they have been thinking of their ambitions? What if they fought with their mom and dad that day? How would they apologise?’
I asked the father if he plans to pull his son out of the school. He said no.
As I board the plane to leave a resilient city, I’m reading this poetry in the local paper:
Wash my bag mama –Author unknown
Please don’t be cross- my bag’s got stains of blood
All my books are red
They’re lost and have become pictures of the past
What happened to me how I long to tell you
I travelled from your lap
To a sea of knowledge in my school
Explosions replaced the ringing of the bell
Bullets were raining down from all directions
That short moment of agony became so long
In the chaos I saw that man
A savage beast carrying a gun
The messenger of hate in the cloak of religion
He declared war as he entered our room of unarmed boys
Waved his gun and lined all of us up
And painted the walls with our blood
Be proud of me mama
I took the bullet in the head
Did not waver did not falter did not fear
Please don’t be cross
The forehead you used to kiss goodbye
Has a hole and is covered in blood
I remember your words when I left in the morning
Don’t forget to finish you lunch, son
Little did you know it was my last breakfast
My creator chose my time was up
Now I’m with my friends and eat with them
Please don’t worry for me
Please don’t forget me
Please don’t be cross – my bag’s got stains of blood