‘My brothers and sisters’
They scaled the back wall, explosives strapped to their bodies, high-powered firearms in hand. They slipped into the main hall undetected, and quickly went up the stage. They then opened fire on their enemy: an assembly of unarmed students.
About a hundred students died in that main hall of the Army Public School and College in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Dec. 16. The gunmen (there were at least seven of them) then moved from classroom to classroom, firing indiscriminately. By the time the Pakistani military had subdued the gunmen, the number of dead had reached 148 in all: 16 members of the school staff, including the woman principal who was set on fire and burned to death, and 132 students. The final grim tally might still rise if some of the 124 wounded (121 of them children) succumb to their injuries.
The mass murder was carried out by the Pakistani Taliban, a branch of the ultrafundamentalist movement that uses terrorism as a strategic policy; it was the worst single tragedy to hit troubled Pakistan in many years, with the biggest number of children victims. It was so horrific, so brutal, that even the Afghan Taliban condemned the massacre as “un-Islamic.”
The Pakistani Taliban justified the attack as retaliation against the Pakistani army’s continuing offensive in the country’s so-called tribal belt, which borders Afghanistan and where the Taliban draw much of their support.
Peshawar is close to the Afghan border. “This is a reaction to the killing of our children and dumping of bodies of our mujahideen,” a spokesman of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan said.
According to the BBC, “many” of the students were children of Pakistani military personnel, and “most” of them “would have been aged 16 or under.” This makes the choice of target easier to understand, but the
Pakistani Taliban are wrong to think that they have exacted revenge. The words of another Taliban victim, student-turned-Nobel-Peace-Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai, reflect the hardened resolve of peace-loving Pakistanis: “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters—but we will never be defeated.”
It may be too early to tell whether the Pakistani military offensive is a triumph or not, but the attack on the Peshawar school is proof that the belated campaign is taking its toll, and the Taliban are hurting. The gunmen were in fact suicide troops, and the explosives they carried brought back memories of the booby traps that Chechen rebels prepared in the 2004 siege of the Beslan school, where over 300 people were killed, including 186 children. The gunmen were there to make a statement, that they were bringing the fight directly to the families of the soldiers who were fighting them. But it was a statement that the Taliban were forced to make, precisely because the military offensive that has been going on since June is working.
To be sure, it is difficult to distinguish between desperation and strategy. According to the International Crisis Group, armed fundamentalist groups attacked over 800 schools between 2009 and 2012 in the province of which Peshawar is part and in the neighboring tribal areas. “Any schools, but particularly girls’ schools, are considered soft targets to further the militants’ ultra-orthodox agenda.” In fact, the attack on Malala was part of the fundamentalist strategy. “In October 2012, Mullah Fazlullah, then leader of the TNSM (a Sunni extremist group), ordered the killing of fourteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai for standing up for girls’ right to education.”
Attacking the school in Peshawar then was part of the Taliban’s terrorist logic. The scale of the attack was unusual but, in the unfortunate recent history of Pakistan, the assault on the school was not unfamiliar.
Sadly, the scenes from this week’s tragedy will become all too familiar: the pictures of wooden coffins stacked outside a hospital, ready for use; the horrifying story about the principal burned to death; the words of a distraught father longing for death himself. “That innocent one is now gone in the grave, and I can’t wait to join him, I can’t live anymore,” the father said, after burying his son.
No matter how many times it happens, the death of innocents is still a shock, their death at the hands of cowardly terrorists always an outrage.
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