Pakistan mourns massacre of 132 school children

(Photo : Xinhua/NEWSis)

(Photo : Xinhua/NEWSis)

The day began like any other morning in Pakistan’s Army Public School in the northwestern city of Peshawar; students pored over their books; teachers ruffled through their notes and gave lectures; and in an instant, the peace was shattered by gunfire, with bodies strewn across the school’s corridors and the terrorists rushing from room to room like wild animals shooting randomly at pupils and adults.

At least 141 Pakistanis, 132 of them children and nine members of staff including lady Principal and teachers were killed in the attack on the military-run school on December 16, an assault by Taliban insurgents as revenge for the killings of their accomplices by the Pakistani Army during ongoing operation in Tribal Area bordering Afghanistan. More deaths are feared, as dozens of innocent students, with precarious injuries, are admitted at hospitals.

The school massacre is being seen as one of the worst in nearly a decade of unabated violence in the country that has killed more than 55,000 Pakistanis. Shocked by the barbaric action, and observing three-day mourning, people around the country lit candles and staged overnight vigils as parents prepared to bury their children during mass funerals.
On Wednesday, the vast grounds of the Army Public School were deserted, with a handful of snipers manning the roofs of its pink brick-and-stone buildings. Army vehicles and soldiers wearing face masks and carrying automatic rifles were deployed at the entrance, and inside, the blood-stained shoes and books, school bags were all scattered in classrooms with bullet and bomb holes in the walls.

Interviews with witnesses showed most victims were shot in the first hours of the assault when gunmen sprayed the premises with bullets in an indiscriminate massacre.

The school is operated by the army. Although it enrolls some civilian students, many of its pupils are children of army personnel.

The assault began at around 10.30a.m., as a group of nine militants, suicide vests tightly strapped to their bodies, burst into the building, according to witnesses. “The attackers came in a pick-up van,” 25-year-old school bus driver Issam Uddin said. “They drove it around the back of the school and set it on fire to block the way. Then they went to Gate- 1 and killed a soldier, a gatekeeper and a gardener.”

“Firing began and the first suicide attack took place.” At least 500 pupils between ages 10 and 20 were inside the building when the attack started.

“They scaled the boundary wall from the adjacent graveyard and started firing while moving towards the classrooms and auditorium,” said a student.

A large number of students gathered in the auditorium to receive first aid training when the attack took place.

“Most of the students received bullets in the head,” said provincial information minister Mushtaq Ahmed Ghani at Lady Reading Hospital.

Shahrukh Khan, 15, was shot in both legs but survived after hiding under a bench. “One of my teachers was crying; she was shot in the hand and she was crying in pain,” he said as he lay on a bed in Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital. “One terrorist then walked up to her and started shooting her until she stopped making any sound. All around me my friends were lying injured and dead.”

As the gunfight between the Taliban and Pakistani forces intensified, at least three of the militants blew themselves up, resulting in several charred bodies of bombers and victims. Six terrorists were killed by the Army.

The corridors of the city’s Combined Military Hospital were lined with dead students, their green-and-yellow school uniform ties peeping out of white body bags. The faces of many children were badly burned as a result of the suicide bombs.

Khalid Khan, 13, said he and his classmates were in a first-aid lesson in the main hall when two clean-shaven armed men wearing white clothes and black jackets entered the room. “They opened fire at the students and then went out. The army doctor and soldiers managed to escape, and we locked the doors from inside,” he said. “But very soon they came, broke the doors and entered and again started firing.”

He said many tried to hide under their desks but were shot anyway, adding that there were around 150 students in the hall around the time of the attack.

“They killed most of my classmates, and then I didn’t know what happened, as I was brought to the hospital,” said Khan, breaking down in sobs.

Others said the gunmen addressed each other in a language they thought was either Arabic or Farsi (Persian).

Another student, Jalal Ahmed, 15, could hardly speak, choking with tears at one of the hospitals. “I am a biochemistry student, and I was attending a lecture in our main hall. There are five doors in the hall. After some time, we heard someone kicking the back doors. There were gunshots, but our teacher told us to be quiet and calmed us down.”

“Then the men came with big guns.” Ahmed started crying. Standing next to his bed, his father, Mushtaq Ahmed, said, “He keeps screaming ‘Take me home, take me home, they will come back and kill me’.”

One 9-year-old boy, who was too afraid to be identified, said teachers shepherded his class out through a back door as soon as the shooting began. “The teacher asked us to recite from the Holy Quran quietly,” he said. “When we came out from the back door there was a crowd of parents who were crying.

“I lay as still as I could and closed my eyes, waiting to get shot again,” a teenage survivor described how he played dead after being shot in both legs.

The Pakistani Taliban, which claimed responsibility for massacre, is the country’s main terrorist group that was also behind the shooting of Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai.

Considered to have close ties to al-Qaida and listed as a terrorist group by the United States since Sept. 1, 2010, the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is a loose coalition of fanatic militants having killed thousands of Pakistanis since its formation in 2007.

Operation was launched on June 15 2014 after talks between the Taliban and the government failed and a terrorist attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi left 39 dead, including all 10 gunmen.

Over the past six months hundreds of Taliban fighters have been killed since a full-fledged military operation was launched. But while the military side of the operation has met its targets, the political contribution made by successive governments has been less than satisfactory.

There has been a consistent lack of sufficient political will and seriousness on the part of the government to fully implement Pakistan’s anti-terrorism laws. Not a single convicted terrorist has so far been punished. After the Tuesday massacre, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s office announced to end its moratorium on the death penalty in terror-related cases. Over 8000 prisoners convicted with capital punishment are awaiting execution in four provinces of country. The number of Taliban prisoners, including suicide bombers in jails, is said to be 250.

According to experts, a backlog of cases, the absence of a proper mechanism to monitor religious schools, the proliferation of mobile phones in prisons, over-reliance on witnesses rather than forensics by the police and a lack of information sharing between civil and military intelligence agencies are just some of the major weaknesses and problems encountered in Pakistan’s anti-terrorism investigations. Institutionalized corruption and political interference has also seriously undermined the capacity of civilian law enforcement agencies to tackle the terrorist threat.

Pakistan’s army chief flew to Afghanistan on Wednesday for what ‘a day of uneasy talks’ with his Afghan counterparts on how to tackle the insurgency. Certain press reports quoted a source as saying that the militants were acting on direct orders from their handlers in Afghanistan and that prominent Taliban commander Umar Naray was the ultimate mastermind of the attack.
Army spokesman Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa hinted at that without naming Afghanistan.

“When these militants reached the school… we found out which group was involved, who they were talking to, from where the operation was being controlled,” he said.

(Photo : AP/NEWSis)

(Photo : AP/NEWSis)

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