Bloodshed in a time of peace
This isn’t really the season for bad news—or for bad news bearers—but we can’t live in a bubble, and the rest of the world doesn’t exactly share our obsession with the celebration—celebration with a capital C—of Christmas.
So even as we were heaving sighs of relief over the end of the hostage-taking in Sydney by a “lunatic” who didn’t really have a clear agenda for his act of terror, it seems armed men in uniform, later identified as Pakistani Taliban, trespassed into a military-run school and shot up the place. At least 141 people, most of them students, were killed.
While Man Haron Monis, the armed man in Sydney, offered only a rambling screed and an incoherent motivation, there seems to be little doubt about the Taliban’s reasons for their massacre of children and teachers. The killings, said the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the group behind the attack, was in retaliation for a major military offensive in the region.
But what did the schoolchildren—both boys and girls—have to do with the offensives launched against this branch of extreme Islamic fundamentalism? True, the school was being managed by the Pakistani military and was inside a military camp. But it drew both the children of soldiers and officers as well as of shopkeepers, vendors and ordinary folk. What do children have to do with war and conflict?
That is what turns one’s stomach at the news. The armed men jumped a wall surrounding the school compound and systematically hunted down students, even firing under desks to target those cowering in fear.
There is nothing casual or accidental in the choice of a school for a target of an attack. The Taliban have long condemned education for children, especially female children, arguing that it goes against the teachings of the Koran. This is specious, at best, because Islam is noted for scholarship and scientific progress, and the world owes what it knows of mathematics, astronomy and other forms of science to ancient Islamic scholars.
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NO ONE perhaps knows more intimately about the Taliban’s hatred of education than a schoolgirl named Malala, who was shot in the face a few years back because she dared speak out in favor of education for girls in Pakistan.
It was in recognition of her courage and determination to champion the cause of education for girls, wherever in the world they may be, that Malala was awarded this year the Nobel Peace Prize (along with Indian Kailash Satyarthi, cited for his work for the rights of child laborers).
Malala has said her “heart is saddened” by what happened in the Peshawar school, but I am sure she was not entirely surprised by the attack. The Taliban are still as strongly and determinedly opposed to learning for young people as they were when they issued the “contract” against Malala. To this day, a standing order for her death awaits her in Pakistan.
And today, more than a hundred young people, whose only fault was to nurse a desire to study and develop themselves, share Malala’s circumstances. But as Malala declares: “We will not be stopped.” And the angry denunciations following the terror visited upon the school—within Pakistan and in the rest of the world—ensure that the schools of Pakistan will remain open and welcoming to all.
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I COULDN’T help recalling my one and only visit to Peshawar many years ago, when, upon the invitation of the Pakistani ambassador to Manila, I joined a group of journalists to tour the country to “dispel” the negative image which, he said, was the work of the Western media.
Peshawar was on our itinerary and I was especially looking forward to setting foot on this frontier city because, said the ambassador, we would be having lunch in a restaurant on a mountainside from where we could have a glimpse of Afghanistan.
We were already on the road to Peshawar when news reached our hosts that just that morning a suicide bomber mingled among some Army trainees (I don’t know if this was the same camp attacked by the gunmen) and then blew himself up, killing a good number of would-be soldiers.
I had but brief glimpses of the streets of Peshawar as we sped down the highway to our hotel. The main impressions I got were of a rowdy, messy town with a busy market and muddy roadsides. Once checked in, we were instructed not to leave the premises, and whatever shopping we wanted to do could be done only in the shops along the hotel’s arcade. Of all the sacrifices we had to endure, I’m sure this no-shopping edict was the most painful!
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WE LEFT Peshawar early in the morning, our minibus speeding along the highway, escorted by both police and military, with police vehicles joining our motorcade at the border of each town we passed.
Our hosts couldn’t get us out of there fast enough, but the tension and nervousness we felt were, I’m sure, but a faint echo of the fear and trepidation that Pakistanis and refugees from Afghanistan live with every day, to this day.
I think of them today—the schoolchildren whose last moments were filled with terror as the men in boots hunted them down, most of them shot in the head. I think, too, of their parents, family members, teachers, neighbors, and friends. I can imagine their grief and anger, their sense of helplessness, of inchoate rage.
While we stew in traffic and curse our officials for the hours-long commute, let’s say a prayer for the children of Pakistan, that this might be the last of the tragedies that will visit their land, and that they may come to know a truly new year of peace.