In Pakistan, wounds of Peshawar school attack reopen each winter

A student holds a placard and candle during a candlelight vigil in Lahore, Pakistan, December 13, 2015 in memory of the victims of last year's Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

Ajoon Khan remembers that brisk December morning in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar vividly, as if it were yesterday, Al Jazeera reported.

On most days, he would still be asleep when his son, Asfand, left for school, but he happened to have woken up early that day.

“We sat wrapped in blankets in bed,” he says, recalling how he spoke to Asfand, 15, his eldest child, about an upcoming wedding in the family, for which they would have to travel to the eastern city of Lahore.

“He said to me, ‘Papa, I want to get some new boots for the wedding’. We decided we would both go to the bazaar that day, after he got home from school.”

Asfand, however, never came home.

Hours later, while at court for a legal hearing, Khan got word from a relative that there had been explosions heard in the city. Soon, the target of the attack was confirmed; gunmen had stormed the Army Public School, where Asfand studied.

“It was very strange, almost surreal,” says Khan. “All the roads were closed, so I walked from the courts. I seemed to walk for endless miles.”

At the school, the security operation to secure the facility was over, and ambulances were busy shuttling the dead and wounded to the city’s hospitals.

Hours passed, as Khan walked first to the Combined Military Hospital, and then to the Lady Reading Hospital, searching for his son among the bloodied bodies of the 134 school children killed and dozens more who were wounded when the six gunmen stormed their school, setting off explosives and firing automatic rifles into classrooms and auditoriums.

Finally, he received another message, from the same relative who had alerted him to the attack.

“They had found Asfand’s body. I had to go home.”

Second deadliest attack

More than 148 people, most of them children, were killed in the attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School on December 16, 2014, making it the second deadliest attack in the country’s history.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella group of armed groups that had been fighting the Pakistani state since 2007, soon claimed responsibility for the assault. In a statement, the Pakistan Taliban claimed the children were legitimate targets because they were studying at a military-run school.

Following the attack on the Army Public School, the government ramped up its security operations, with the military stepping up air attacks and ground operations in all seven northwestern tribal districts, targeting the Pakistan Taliban.

In all, the military says it killed more than 4,000 members of armed groups since it launched Zarb-e-Azb, losing hundreds of soldiers in the process. The data is impossible to verify, given strict reporting restrictions in the conflict zone.

So where does the Pakistan Taliban stand now?



Wounds and signs of trauma

As Pakistan touts its gains against armed groups operating in the country, having displaced the Tehreek-e-Taliban and its allies from the territory in the northwest they once occupied, analysts warn the war is far from over.

“[The armed groups were born] in a certain area, there were drivers of conflict in [the tribal districts], and to change that is what Pakistan needs to focus on,” says Khan.

Earlier this year, Pakistan’s parliament passed a bill that would merge the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, reversing decades of repressive state policies where the region was governed directly from Islamabad and where most Pakistani laws – including those relating to human rights – did not apply.

“This continuous security threat that the Tehreek-e-Taliban posed to daily movement and life, it starts where the repressive cycle of the Pakistani state begins [in FATA],” says Simbal Khan, an Islamabad-based security analyst.

Since May, the government has been working on implementing a set of legal and administrative reforms that would see the former tribal districts governed in line with policy across the country, with greater resources devoted to governance and citizens allowed full rights and access to the country’s justice system.

“Clear, hold, build and transfer are the cardinals of anti-insurgency operations,” said the Pakistani military in a statement. “We have cleared, we are holding and building concurrently and we are selectively transferring according to the situation and threat matrix.”

Hussain warns that there is another danger in Pakistan’s policies: that of selective action against armed groups.

“The level of violence has come down, but the threat of militancy is far from over,” he says. “It has taken different shapes. Sectarian militancy is still hounding the country.”

Pakistan is home to roughly 32 million Shia Muslims, as well as millions of Christians, Hindus and members of other minority Muslim sects. These groups have often found themselves targeted by armed groups.

“The action against armed groups happened in a patchwork,” says Hussain. “Some groups were targeted, but generally the campaign to curb extremism has fallen short of expectations.”

Back in Peshawar, the cold winds of December are blowing once more.

“Like an old injury in the winter, when the cold comes, we can feel these wounds open up again every year,” says Akbar Khan, 60, whose son Umar, now 20, was badly wounded in the attack on the Army Public School.

Umar still struggles, he says. From time to time, he will panic if he hears a loud noise, running through the house demanding that all the doors and windows be closed, latched, locked and secured.

“I see signs of the trauma, every day,” says Khan, who says he still feels anger that such an attack could have happened.

“It is such a strange thing. What is a state? If the institutions of a state cannot function and keep people safe, then what is the point of them?”