For Pakistanis, December 16, was always a day of tragedy – and unforgettable pain. On 16th December 1971, Pakistani garrison in Dacca surrendered to invading Indian forces.
For past four decades, newspapers and now private TV channels have marked the day by articles, supplements and heated discussions, kind of self-flagellation, on what went wrong. But since the nightmare at Army Public School (APS), on Dec 16, 2014, this has become a day of “Twin Tragedies”.
Pakistanis, after 9/11, once Musharraf sided with the US’s war against Taliban in Afghanistan, has suffered hundreds of terrorist attacks on garrisons, check posts, intelligence headquarters, government offices, mosques, train stations, courts, colleges, parks, and schools but still nothing had prepared them for what transpired in the morning of Dec 16, 2014 at APS, Peshawar.
Gunmen of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella group of terrorist outfits, believed to be deriving support from Afghan Intelligence, NDS, barged into the Army Public School (APS), at Warsak Road, Peshawar, around 10am in the morning and started killing.
Survivors and soldiers that fought them out were unanimous, in their description, that these gunmen did not want to take any hostages. They had no demands; they were only interested in killing. By the time, this orgy of flood and fire ended they had killed almost 150 students and teachers – their victims were as young as 6; most ranged in ages between 13 and 16.
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Much has been written on the barbarity of this blood bath – but none is more moving than an account, “I witnessed the Peshawar Massacre” by Kiran Nazish, of Al Jazeera. She, writing on Dec 17, one day later, reproduced the account of several students who survived; and this reads something like this:
“..We were in between lessons during our first class, when we suddenly heard the sound of shooting, It was very aggressive noise. We did not have time to even imagine what it could be. Within moments as the noise got closer to our class room our teacher told us to hide beneath our desks.’ Get under your desk, fast, get under your desk,’ she said. Some of us cowered. Some of us stood confused and panicked. The whole classroom started asking our teacher “what is happening”. Screaming children from the classrooms next door shocked us. It scared me so much, I could not even scream…Our teacher was just about to lock the door when three militants stormed in the door. They were already shooting, and I saw my teacher and class fellows immediately get hurt. Some of my friends started falling down (after being hit).I played dead for several hours. When the soldiers came to rescue, I could not move and remained still. I did not know if they were real soldiers. And I could not speak. I was very scared…When someone picked me up I kept my eyes closed. It was the army soldiers, I started crying. They took me to my parents…”
TTP gunmen – adjectives like terrorists lose meaning – shot the young students in the head, in the chest, on their arms, on the legs and in the stomach. Since everyone was on ground, and they suspected that among the fallen bodies, many are still alive so they started shooting the bodies- into the skulls.
They shot the teachers forcing students to watch; in at least two instances they burnt a teacher alive. The APS tragedy galvanized a nation-leading to intensification of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a rare unity behind a new “National Action Plan” and resumption of hangings of terrorists and other criminals who had exhausted their appeal process and awaited capital punishment.
These initiatives in combination lead to a marked reduction in overall terrorist activity across the country – though which action delivered most is less clear. Despite the enormity of what happened, details are still at best murky. Were there seven attackers that morning or nine? Were all killed when commando units arrived or some of them escaped?
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Among those who were killed, were they shot or they blew themselves up? Did commandos arrive in 15 minutes as Wikipedia and some Pakistani papers claim or they arrived after couple of hours as some eyewitness accounts mention and as reported by international publications like Al Jazeera – while describing personal accounts.
At least in KP, but nothing happened. Despite more than 20 plus 24/7 News channels, several English and Urdu paper and scores of online publications there is no clarity on these issues – to this day.
On 17 December, next day after the APS massacre, Pakistan’s then Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif, accompanied by the Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lieutenant-General Rizwan Akhtar, went to Kabul to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and General John F. Campbell, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Finally, was there a substantive, open ended, enquiry on security lapses? After all it was a cantonment, with many sensitive government buildings around; was any one held responsible and punished? Parents of the children kept demanding a Judicial Inquiry – it never happened.
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According to news sources in Pakistan, General Raheel had asked for the handover of the TTP leadership and asked the Afghan government to act against hideouts of the Taliban terrorists in its territory. What happened later, there is no clarity. Apparently, the mastermind of the attack, Umar Mansoor Khorasani, was reported to have been wounded in a United States drone strike in Paktia Province of Afghanistan, three years later, on 17 October 2017.
He was shifted to an undisclosed location and reportedly succumbed to his injuries. However, Mullah Fazlullah, TTP leader, who had claimed responsibility for the attack, two days later, on 18th Dec, 2014, through a video, made on a hilltop, somewhere in Afghanistan is still at large.
Moeed Pirzada is prominent TV Anchor & commentator; he studied international relations at Columbia Univ, New York and law at London School of Economics. Twitter: MoeedNj. This piece appeared in the December 2017 issue of “Global Village Space Magazine”