Mohammad Hilal, 16, lies motionless on his bed in the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar. He is one of the survivors of the December 16 massacre at the Army Public School, which left 145 dead, including 132 children. Five young men give Hilal a firm handshake, placing flowers behind him on the windowsill.
“These men aren’t Hilal’s friends,” says Nahida Bibi, a nurse in the male Orthopaedics B ward. “Every day, people from nearby areas and cities come to meet these children and comfort their parents.” Bibi has been working at the hospital for less than two weeks, and already she has been exposed to what many now regard as Pakistan’s 9/11. “When Hilal came here, he had severe fever and would bleed a lot,” she says. “He still has shoulder and lower limb injuries but is recovering slowly.”
Hilal’s father, Mohammad Bilal, is a gardener at his son’s school. Locked inside a room with his colleagues until the commandos and Special Services Group (SSG) had overcome the seven terrorists inside the school building, he was told that no child had survived. “When the siege ended, I went straight to the military hospital and found my son bleeding,” he says, overcome with emotions of relief and bliss. “I will take my son back to school once it reopens and he recovers,” says Bilal. “If we don’t go, then it means we have lost.”
When the terrorists entered the school auditorium, more than 100 kids – mostly from grades 8, 9 and 10 – were taking part in a first aid training session. The seven gunmen entered the room shooting indiscriminately. Some of the children managed to stayed alive by pretending to be dead. Most were slaughtered.
Four days after the massacre, and the air is somber. While schools throughout the country remained closed for security reasons, the Army Public School is filled with dozens of children, who have donned their school uniforms and are strolling through classrooms, which now have craters in the walls. Most of the blood-splattered floors have been cleaned but bloodstains and shattered glass are still visible. Photographs of some of the victims, taken from their Facebook pages or provided by relatives, are placed on wreathes and posters that adorn a large portion of the school grounds.
The eerie silence in the school is in sharp contrast to the clamor in the rest of the country. In Islamabad, protests have been held outside the Red Mosque, whose chief cleric, Abdul Aziz, has refused to condemn the killings. Hundreds of protestors have shouted anti-Taliban slogans, holding placards of “Arrest Abdul Aziz.” The cleric’s obstinacy led marchers to lodge a police complaint (known in Pakistan as a First Information Report) against him on the second day of the protests.
The public outrage has forced the government to respond. Two days after the brutal killings, Pakistan lifted the six-year moratorium on the death penalty. Convicted terrorists are now being executed, with six hanged already. In 2013, the Taliban warned that if the government executed Taliban serving jail terms, then the Taliban would be at war with the government. Nonetheless, the Pakistani government plans to execute 500 militants convicted on terrorism-related charges in the coming weeks, with the president having rejected their mercy petitions. Given the expected backlash, schools, airports and prisons have been put on high alert during the executions, with police and rangers deployed across the country.
“Their pain and anger is too intense right now,” says Rehman Azhar, a television anchor who had just recorded his television show with the family members of survivors and victims in Peshawar. “Many relatives spoke to me on camera that in the midst of their sorrow they got some satisfaction with the government’s decision to hang terrorists.” As Azhar exits the male Orthopaedic ward, where he’s a familiar face with families of survivors, he adds that their families are in agony and want revenge. “The majority of the children who died had close roots to the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where retribution is part of their culture.”
However, the desire for vengeance has spread beyond any single province. Throughout the country, people have been protesting on the streets and during vigils have held up placards that have demanded that the government hang the Taliban.
International human rights organizations have criticized the decision of the Pakistani government to resume executions. Amnesty International condemns the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty, stating on its website, “Resuming the death penalty is not the answer to combating terrorism in Pakistan and only perpetuates a cycle of violence.”
“In the short term, the feelings of the nation are important,” says Dr. Syed Hussain Shaheed Soherwordi, head of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) studies at the University of Peshawar. “People are very frustrated at the moment and the entire nation is united in fighting the Taliban.”
Soherwordi adds that in the long term, a counter narrative must be produced. “Textbooks have to be changed, what professors teach students has to change, the narrative on television has to be changed,” he says. “Our kids are brain washed and need to be told that no murder is in the name of God.”
He goes on to say that support from the international community is important. “When Americans invaded Iraq, they went along with many countries. This is our 9/11 and the world should join us, especially Afghanistan where the operation command of TTP is sitting. Without them, it would be a futile exercise.”
But for Soherwordi, the counter narrative that Pakistan needs to focus on in the long term is not just through school textbooks. “The government has to control the religion. It cannot be left in the hands of a few clerics, “ he says. In the days following the massacre, social media sites carried messages calling on people to monitor the Friday prayer sermons at their local mosques to ensure there is no hate speech and that the school attack is condemned blatantly. “Friday sermons delivered by mosques must be written and sent to clerics by the state. The moment the state controls the mosques, this problem will be solved.”
Mina Sohail is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad.