No end to Pakistan school’s trauma, one year on

Students, who survived the December 16 Taliban attack which killed at least 144, paying a high price in academic terms.

Students who survived the massacre in a Pakistan school last year, which left at least 144 people dead, are still struggling to cope with the lingering effects of the tragedy.

Seven gunmen attacked the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar last December, killing at least 132 children.

The students say they are unable to do well in school after the attack. It has affected their grades, they added, and caused most of them to fail to be accepted to universities of their choice. 

Peshawar school attack survivor recounts his story

Aakif Azeem, who studied at the school for seven years and graduated this year, is now a student at Peshawar University pursing a bachelor’s degree in environmental science. He wanted to become an astronomer but his “grades were not good enough to achieve that”.

“The school has become a PR platform,” Azeem told Al Jazeera. “Politicians and celebrities visit the school as part of their PR strategy and this has distracted a lot of students.

“We barely studied this year. It took us and the teachers a very long time to cope with losing our dear ones. We still cannot get over it and we never will.

“About two months ago, students were called to rehearse for the official anniversary commemoration while they were taking their exams. They left their exams and went on to rehearse. What do you expect in this situation? Why was preference given to the rehearsal over their exams?” 

READ MORE: ‘I witnessed the Peshawar massacre’

Some teachers have resigned following the attack, claiming army’s intervention in school matters.

“After the attacks, the administration was no longer in charge of school affairs,” Mohammed Ismail, a former APS mathematics teacher who taught grade six to eight, told Al Jazeera. 

“I struggled to do my best, forget the tragedy and move forward. There has to be a system. Students were told they will all be given a passing percentage in the final exam and that’s why I saw them lack interest during my lectures.

“The other hindrance in continuing to teach was that students would suddenly collapse during my lecture. It has been very difficult for them to forget what happened. They are deeply affected psychological if not physically. No proper counselling was given to them.”

The death toll included at least 132 children [EPA]
The death toll included at least 132 children [EPA]

Ismail resigned three months ago and is now teaching at a school in his hometown in the Nowshera district of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

A current teacher at the school told Al Jazeera that things will improve only if “the quality of education and security situation goes hand in hand”.

“We can’t just have good security at the school. What is important at the moment is counselling of teachers and children for them to perform better. We had counsellors assigned only for a few months after the attack,” he said.

“Students who used to get A grades in every exam are now getting Cs and Ds. This is a matter of concern. It means that we’re falling behind in helping them. Low grades can affect their career.”

READ MORE: Peshawar army school reopens after massacre

However, Malik Khalid Khan, president of the All Primary Teacher’s Association in the province, told Al Jazeera that safety and security of children in schools should be a priority for them to perform better. 

“This attack has been a turning point for Peshawar. The tight security at schools is commendable at this point,” he said.

“There is a constant encouraging and motivating environment at the school. It will, however, take time for things to return to normal.

“Today, if parents feel safe sending their children to the school, it means the army was successful in keeping their promises of a secure environment for the students.”

A mother holds a student card of her son during a ceremony on first anniversary of the Peshawar school attack [EPA]
A mother holds a student card of her son during a ceremony on first anniversary of the Peshawar school attack [EPA]

Some parents of the slain children are still seeking answers about how the security system could have failed so miserably. They are demanding a full judicial inquiry, complaining that no government, security or military official has been held publicly accountable.

At least a dozen families boycotted Wednesday’s anniversary commemoration in protest. 

“The attack could have been avoided. Our children would have been alive today. We don’t know if the real culprits are executed or not,” a parent, who lost three children in the attack, told Al Jazeera.

In August, the army announced that six fighters linked to the Peshawar assault would be executed, while a seventh was given a life sentence. Four were hanged on December 2.

READ MORE: Pakistan sentences convicts to die over Peshawar attack

Current and former students of APS are still motivated to attend schools and universities without fear. 

At the first anniversary, Nawaz Sharif, prime minister of Pakistan, declared December 16 a national day of education, promising he would not let “extremists burn out the flame of knowledge”.

All schools were closed across the country to mark the day.

“This attack actually motivated and charged me well enough to continue my education,” Obaid Awan, a former Army Public School student who witnessed the attack, said. 

“This is the only way to prove that the attackers were cowards and can’t stop us. Even though I miss my teachers and friends and can never forget them, I will still strive for a better education.” 

Source: Al Jazeera