Once you enter the gates of the school, there is a long straight road ahead of you, with a playground to the right of the road and the school wall to the left. Perhaps it would not seem so long now, 13 years later.
In my mind’s eye, the length of the road remains the same, but I struggle to recall it without the images of little dead bodies superimposed over it.
It was library period. Class 7E walked single file down the corridor, past the auditorium, up a flight of stairs into wood-paneled doors. A library that was too cold and too dark, the librarian too forbidding.
The chairs were quite comfortable, though, and I sat in one of them reading a book I can’t remember the name of. It was a story about a soldier in enemy territory, trying to escape back into his own. It was deathly cold, but he could not ask for shelter. Instead, when he got tired, he would lie on the ground and will himself to believe that it was warm. It worked for him. Even in the crippling cold, he could use the power of his mind to believe it was warm and that it would all be fine.
The library at the Army Public School, Peshawar from the yearbook for the academic year 1999-2000. —Photo by author
Thirteen years later, some child would be sitting on that same chair, willing himself to believe that the cold in his attacker’s heart would turn to warmth. Maybe, after getting shot, he would have spent a few moments thinking about the warmth of his mother’s embrace.
When I was reading that book, I remember finding it impossible to believe that we could use the power of our minds to ignore the stark facts before us. Now, I see how it is possible and how we have all been doing it for so long.
We have been, for the most part, warm despite the cold, unflinching terror before us.
They say the attackers scaled a wall separating the school and an adjacent graveyard. On my way back home from school, I would pass by this graveyard; it was impossible to miss. I remember wondering what it would be like to visit the graveyard as someone whose loved one was buried in it.
Parents Day at the Army Public School, Peshawar from the yearbook for the academic year 1999-2000. —Photo by author
I do not remember there being a lot of empty space in that graveyard. Thirteen years of urban sprawl have happened since. Will there be enough space for the bodies, small and big? When will we run out of space?
Walking past the administrative block towards the car park at the end of a school day, I would often encounter some teachers and students praying on straw mats strewn on the grass in front of the senior school block. There would be about 10-15 people, and my Islamiat teacher was usually one of them. His head was always tilted slightly to the left. For him, probably a marker of added involvement and concentration in the prayer. For me, an unnecessary display of piety.
Naat competition at the Army Public School, Peshawar from the yearbook for the academic year 1999-2000. —Photo by author
I wonder if he still taught at the school. I wonder if he still tilted his head to the left when he prayed. I wonder if the tilt saved his life today. I wonder if the lack of a tilt cost the others on the prayer mats their lives.
From the windows of class 7E, we could see a lot of trees and shrubs within the school boundary walls. Sometimes, to skip class, or sometimes in break-time, we would walk into the stretch of what I thought of as woods, lining the back wall of the school. We would crack silly jokes and look for interesting objects left behind by others as if we were scavenging in a forest. When a member of the staff saw us, we would be summoned back to class.
Did any of the children run to the trees to hide?
Sometimes they would cut down the shrubs and bushes, but if they hadn’t recently been cut, there might have been space to hide. But the green of their sweaters is too bright, so maybe the ones with the big black boots would have seen them trying to hide. (But, sometimes in the winter months there would be fog!).
Staff members of the Army Public School, Peshawar from the yearbook for the academic year 1999-2000. —Photo by author
Months from now, when another kid walks into the trees to look for interesting objects left behind by others, would they find a pencil sharpener, a chewed-up pencil, a pack of gum they weren’t allowed to chew in class?
Would there be dried blood on these objects? How much care will be taken to remove these traces of blood?
There was a small canal in front of the school, running parallel to the main road. There was a period of one or two weeks when we would see soldiers standing on either side of the canal, knee-deep in mud, clearing out the excess deposits. ‘Bhal Safai’, they called it. I remember thinking our soldiers must not have a lot else to do if they were clearing out canals.
How long will it take them now to clear out the blood and the insides of children strewn all over the school?
They say the metric class students were taking exams in the auditorium when the attackers entered the school. There are five exits in that auditorium.
Two on either side in the front. Two on either side in the middle. One in the back. Reports state that all their moves were calculated. Did they enter through all five of the exits simultaneously or did they leave any unattended? The one at the back would have been the best one for a quick exit. Run across a few feet of concrete (past the chalking of quotes attributed to Quaid-e-Azam) down a dozen steps, and into the trees.
The samosas at the canteen were usually soggy, but there was something wonderful about the chutney that I have not seen replicated elsewhere. I excitedly made my mother have a plate of samosa chat when she once came to school for a parent-teacher meeting. She was not impressed. It’s too watery, she said, and probably really unhealthy.
If there were any children in the canteen, they would probably not have survived. It was too open. There was no place to hide.
Sports Day at the Army Public School, Peshawar from the yearbook for the academic year 1999-2000. —Photo by author
What are the boundaries of grief?
In time, does it start right away, or does it take a couple of days for the shock to settle in and then be replaced by grief?
Maybe it starts earlier for some and later for others. Of course, it never happens for most. Because in space, the boundaries of grief are quite ambiguous.
Humanity never grieves in its entirety. “There are so many children beneath the benches, go and get them”, one of them shouted.
Will he, with the big black boots, ever grieve this?
What do we grieve for? Deaths, the deaths of children? At what number does grief begin? 141 dead, 132 of them children, they report. When was the last time you grieved? What was the number then? Do we need more than numbers to grieve? Pictures, details of how it happened?
Over the years, the bodies have accumulated. From tens to hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands. We have not grieved them enough. The world has grieved them even less.
Which is the bigger atrocity? The millions who grieve or the billions who will never grieve?
It is impossible to grieve every single time. For every single one. It is impossible to grieve for too long.
Blame and Condemnation
The one with the big black boots says he did this because of what others with big black boots did to him. In apportioning blame, how far back in history do we go and how wide do we cast our net?
We know that if we cast it too wide, it will capture us or those close to us or those we do not want to be seen disagreeing with.
And so we start off cautiously, taking one incident at a time, trying to trace the path between cause and effect. When we do go beyond single incidents, we go for neat, comfortable narratives.
Russian invasion in Afghanistan. American funding of Mujahideen. The Army’s games in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Indian infiltration. Saudi money. Poverty. Lack of education. Lack of development. Apathetic politicians. Insensitive middle classes.
If X causes Y and Y causes Z, can we blame Y for Z or is only X to blame? Where do we start and where do we stop?
Perhaps monsters are created because we need a visualisation of the evil that our minds cannot capture. Monsters are useful because they distance blame from ourselves. Monsters are simple, neat and horrific. There is no need for nuance. Evil is useful because if evil exists then good does too, and we embody the good because we define the evil.
The condemnations come pouring in.
COAS Raheel Sharif. Chairman PTI Imran Khan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Prime Minister David Cameron. Ambassador Richard Olson. President Obama. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
Each with their own idea of good and evil, of the nature of the beast. Each outside the circle of blame, within the circle of grief.
“Our resolve has taken new height. Will continue (to) go after inhuman beasts, their facilitators till their final elimination,” says COAS Raheel Sharif.
Who is this beast, where and when does it begin, and where do we need to go to eliminate it?
Is it within our borders or outside them as well?
Does it end where we begin or does it extend to within our souls?
Is there someone else left to blame, before we finally turn on ourselves?
The Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa declared three days of mourning.
Now, we will mourn for three days. And then, we will stop mourning.
We forget our own 9/11’s (there have been too many). How can we expect anyone else to remember?