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It is hard for me to believe that it has been a year since the attacks of 16/12. A year ago, our nation stood witness to an act of senseless carnage and wanton brutality that transcended all rules of engagement and dipped into the realm of monstrosity.
A year ago, we stood aghast as we watched hate spewing radicals cross the line that separates humanity from barbarism and wreak havoc upon the flag bearers of our country’s progress. On this day, our nation saw the calamity brought upon us by an intolerant, vicious and misogynistic ideology. An ideology that is primitive and radical, one which condemns innocents to death as easily as it blows up educational institutes for women.
But on this day of solemn recollection, I feel it wouldn’t be appropriate to waste space in criticising this backwards doctrine and its fanatical adherents. Analysts much more knowledgeable than me have been doing that with increasing frequency, particularly since the September 11 attacks. For me, this is a day of remembrance. A day in which it becomes our duty to reflect on the agony inflicted upon us when the wolves came calling.
There came a moment in time when my thoughts strayed away from the information overload brought about by the flurry of reports of news channels and the grim accounts of anchors. This was a moment when the reality of the scope of this tragedy really began to sink in. On this moment my heart moved from its state of cold, broken denial to a raging torrent of grief that shook me to the core. In this moment of sinking grief, I saw the victims as more than just statistics on a screen.
This point of sudden realization was something we all experienced after the blood had dried on the tiles of the classroom floors and the sirens of the ambulances had faded into the night. We realised then, that these were not just 144 people, but 144 parts of 144 different stories. And these stories will be left incomplete with the passing away of the parts that once had made them whole. The souls we lost on that fateful day will not breathe and walk among their friends as we do now. I think Lawrence Binyon highlights this best when he says, “
“They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time.”
In the months since the attack my grief shifted from being a general expression of sorrow to one that was more specific and I did so by trying to focus on the stories of each soul we lost that day. To put it more simply, I wasn’t satisfied with the general bits of information that pervaded the internet in the days that followed the massacre. I wanted to probe deeper onto the reality of the situation and lose myself in the ethereal company of a group of students who I had never had the fortune to meet.
I considered myself blessed every time I’d stumble upon some small snippet of information, no matter how trivial, for it helped me piece together the individual details of the victims to create a vivid mental portrait of the personalities we lost in the attack within the confines of my mind. This grief we feel has no connection with the reliable statistics of news channels.
It is spontaneous and sincere, and is accompanied by tears and solemn remembrance every time one comes across a particularly touching or poignant reminder of that moment when we were driven to our knees by the shock of what had befallen us. I laud Dawn News for its #144stories trend that familiarised us with the intimate details of the victims by introducing to us the lesser known aspects of the personalities of these victims. Because every sentence we read and every small snippet of information we come across breathe life into our memories of those who shall not breathe again.
In the aftermath of this massacre I saw a flurry of emotions that swept the nation from its knees to its feet. These emotions were ubiquitous and shared by people of different ethnicity and religious beliefs. It is a grim irony that news of this tragedy accomplished what hundreds of speeches by politicians during election season had failed to do: unite the citizens of this nation.
It brought about this intense surge of patriotism that I had rarely seen before in my adolescent life. Indeed the only times I had actually seen a similar level of patriotism was during the festivities of Independence Day, or when Pakistan played India in a cricket match. And yet, no matter how much we differed in our views on how best to fight the so called war on terror, our initial reaction was unanimous: Bring the killers to justice.
For once, we saw this disaster unfold before us not with the glassy eyes of Pakistanis used to acts of violence in our country, but with an outpouring of grief and rage at the length these monsters had gone to. Our nation rallied behind our army chief and demanded vengeance, which was swiftly delivered by the hundreds of strafing sorties and bombing runs carried out by our armed forces in the territory frequented by these killers.
And for once, our nation did not just let the military do the heavy lifting. Brave individuals held aloft the banner of liberty and took to the streets, demanding that all anti-state elements within Pakistan that preached hatred and bigotry in the name of Islam be brought to justice.
Foremost among them was Jibran Nasir, who stood his ground among a band of committed and dedicated Pakistanis outside the infamous Lal Masjid, demanding that Moulvi Abdul Aziz (a man skilled at cowardly escape and evasion) be brought to justice for his inflammatory and radical remarks.
For once, I saw that the same radical and bigoted extremists who had held so much sway over the hearts of common people take a step back as our nation woke up from its state of apathy. We woke up from a condition that was brought on by our mistrust of other Pakistanis, by our arrogance in believing that our sect was better than the sects of others, that our religious beliefs would guarantee a place in Paradise while the beliefs of others would guarantee them a fast track to hell.
As our humanity seeped away from us, we tried to fill in the gaping hole left behind with the rhetoric of fanatical scholars and dubious politicians.
And it took the deaths of innocent children to rouse us from our apathy. I understand that this isn’t the first time innocents have been attacked by terrorists since Pakistan entered the war on terror. We have lost many lives to these extremist elements and also to the illegal drone strikes by the Coalition forces.
But the reason why I believe we finally stood up from this state of apathy is that we were tired, tired of making peace with these elements that crave war, and exhausted at all futile attempts to negotiate with a people who wished to impose their beliefs upon us. I pray that we find the strength to continue our mission to drive out these terrorists, these butchers of innocence who do not know mercy.
Our nation is not perfect. It has its flaws and no shortage of critics. But it also has a people who, despite all these flaws, still wish for peace. We have been at war for over a decade now, and at the end of the day, it honestly doesn’t matter what tribe we are from or what religious belief we adhere to when we’re all lying in the same cold earth, gunned down by a vicious plague that exploited our disunity.
Our disunity is a weakness that this enemy can exploit very easily and we must understand that we acquired crucial knowledge from this atrocity. We acquired the knowledge to distinguish between intolerance and tolerance; between war and peace; between love and hate, and between the hateful ideology preached by these fanatics who saw no problem in butchering defenseless children and our belief in peace for us and for generations to come.
We are at war. And we all have a part to play in this decisive conflict. For our actions today will determine what our children will inherit tomorrow. We can still save ourselves. We can still redeem ourselves in the eyes of our fellow Pakistanis who’ve been victims to this wave of extremism, and who we have failed. The burden is one we must all share. We cannot leave it to the military to finish off this idea of terrorism. We definitely need our military to wipe out the last bastions of armed insurgency in the north, and to seal our borders against those who wish to do us harm.
But the reality is that terrorism is like the Hydra of ancient lore; cut off one head and two more shall take its place. We must recognise that we aren’t at war against an army which rallies around a single leader to guide them. If that were the case, then these terrorists would have laid down their arms the moment we bombed their leadership. No, these extremists rally around an ideology that is hateful and cruel.
They are attracted to the words of bigoted preachers and spiteful clerics, who misinterpret verses of the Holy Quran to attain their own nefarious goals. And it is a tragedy that these children who sign up to become suicide bombers haven’t been given proper education, and that is how they lose that innate ability to choose between right and wrong. We can bomb these terrorists all we want, but that will still only cripple them for a while.
They will lie dormant, and yet the seeds of hatred they have sown will continue to sprout, watered by an extremist ideology. The military has done an admirable job of bringing this terrorist movement to its knees. But the decisive blow must be dealt with by our pens and books, and not with bombs and small arms. Our military is doing its part to bring these monstrous elements to their knees, but it is our job as citizens of Pakistan to support the military by using our voices to speak out against all forms of hate.
It is our duty to follow the lead of people like Jibran Nasir and the late Sabeen Mehmud and start addressing the faults in the fundamentalist teachings preached by certain fanatical scholars. It will be difficult, as these elements will resort to threats and even violence to deter us from taking a stand. But they will not see a nation of cowering millions who believe their promises of terror. They will look at the far horizon and see the dawn of a new era. They will see an army of scholars and lawyers, an army of intellectuals and doctors and engineers. An army armed with knowledge and compassion.
An army looked upon by the souls we lost on 16/12 and the souls we lost to the hundreds of bombings and other acts of senseless violence since the invasion of Afghanistan. And as unrealistic as this may sound, it is what I choose to believe in. And the moment we realise that you can’t fight fire with fire, that you can’t remove violence with even more violence, and that people around us have as much right to believe in what they wish just as we do, our nation will grow strong and prosper.
Our military has done its duty with a conviction that it has always displayed, and its sacrifices have all been for the sake of seeing our nation prosper. But the time has come for us to do right by the heroic soldiers, sailors and airmen who have bled and lain down their lives for us. The time has come for us to act to the best of our ability so that when we do succeed (In Shaa Allah) we can reflect upon the thousands of Pakistanis we have lost to this wave of terrorism and state with absolute confidence, “Never again.”