Textbooks soaked with blood strewn across the floor, overturned desks near small bodies with bullet holes in their faces, charred remains of females with cut strands of hair nearby – this was the devastation wreaked on students and their teachers at a school in northwest Pakistan this week.
The perpetrators, the Pakistan Taliban, called it a justifiable act of vengeance.
“It’s revenge for the Pakistan army’s offensive in North Waziristan,” said Pakistan Tehreek-e-Taliban’s spokesperson Mohammed Umar Khorasani. “We targeted the school because the army targets our families. We want them to feel our pain.”
That’s a new one.
The Taliban and other Muslim extremists have long bombed schools, especially those for girls, believing that education is only for males. For years, they terrorized female students in Swat Valley, Pakistan, home to Malala Youfsafzai who was shot by them when boarding a school bus two years ago. She was 15, and standing up for girls’ education rights.
In Nigeria, militant Boko Haram this year have killed dozens of male students and kidnapped hundreds of girls – who remain missing – because their education was deemed too Western, and therefor anti-Islam.
A decade ago, armed Muslim militants took more than 1,100 people hostage at a school in Beslan, in the Russian autonomous republic of North Ossetia, demanding recognition of Chechnya’s independence and Russia’s withdrawal. In that three day siege, 385 people died after Russian security forces stormed the building – 186 were children.
In fact, the number of attacks on schools is staggering: According to the NY-based NGO, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, there were 9,600 attacks on schools across 70 countries killing hundreds over the past five years.
But in no case that I can recall did a militant group attack a school solely for the purpose of vengeance. I’d like to ask: Revenge – on whom? Children in school uniforms about to take biology and chemistry exams?
Apparently so. According to Pakistani military officials, the children were targeted in an attack designed to terrorize them, to kill them – and they did: 132 students dead and 14 teachers murdered.
The details are wrenching, and telling. Here’s one student, 12th grader Aakif’s account:
“It was 10:30 a.m. when I came downstairs from my examination hall to go to the bathroom. I was taking my chemistry exam and I felt pretty confident over my preparation for it. When I entered the bathroom I heard gunshots. I thought it must be somewhere outside of the school – nothing important. But when I heard multiple gunshots and people screaming I ran out of the bathroom and rushed upstairs. A tall guy with a beard and bloody eyes appeared in front of me, pointing a gun at me. He immediately fired at me but missed – I ran as fast as I could and hid behind a wall. I took refuge in classroom 7D. There was a female teacher there with 24 students – all of them were crying. We all froze when we heard gunshots coming from the auditorium and people screaming.”
“It took about one and a half hour for the army to arrive and save us. I witnessed our Urdu teacher dying – they tied her up to a chair, cut her hair and set fire to her. I lost a lot of friends…their faces were shot by those animals!”
Who deliberately fires at children? It’s usually the rare wackos or disgruntled, alienated students in my country (the US) and elsewhere in the West. But they don’t usually shoot children in the face. And that the Taliban cut the hair of a teacher before they set her on fire – in front of children – speaks to a far more deliberate, cognizant evil.
Still, speak to the militants like we did and they express a cold bitterness that is chilling.
“There is a reaction to every action, that’s all I can say,” said Mohammed, a militant currently living in a madrassa (religious school) in Waziristan, when reached by phone.
We asked him if it’s okay to kill these innocent children. He replied, “Yes, our children died as well.”
Children get caught in aerial bombings during war, get blown up in terrorist attacks and are recruited as soldiers in conflicts all over the world. But I wonder when it became okay to deliberately target them, to terrorize them, to hunt them, as part of a broader fight.
Interestingly, the attack was even too much for the female-hating thugs that make up the Afghan Taliban, which spawned the Pakistani branch.
“They’ve have seen worst, they’ve seen their children slaughtered and mother and wives killed and disrespected in front of their eyes,” said Mullah Salih Khan, an Afghan Taliban from Kandahar, referring to the militants’ revenge justification.
But he was unequivocal in his disapproval.
“I would call this a revenge attack, one which has nothing to do with Islam. In Sharia law (Islamic law), it is not allowed to kill the family members of the wrongdoers – as they are innocent and have not committed any crime,” he added. “We’ve never executed such attacks that target children or women and will never exclusively attack schools or any other place that has majority of women or children.”
“Children are children, they are not even aware of how to practice a religion properly, so they don’t deserve to die in such attacks. We condemn this.”
Unfortunately, it is all too likely that such attacks continue, if not least because, as the adage goes, vengeance breeds vengeance.
“I wanted to be a first class astronomer,” said Aakif. “But now, I want to join the Pakistani army so I can take revenge for my friends and teachers who were murdered by these monsters.”
* Shereena Qazi in Doha, Qatar contributed reporting to this story.
*Jabeen Bhatti has worked as a print journalist in the US and abroad for almost two decades, writing for The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Times, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg and other publications. Originally from the Washington, DC area, Jabeen has lived in Poland, Denmark and South Korea, before moving to Berlin in 2003. In the US, she covered local and national news, and a variety of beats; overseas, she has covered spot news, and written news analysis and features on politics, society, arts, law and business, as well as covered energy/environment issues and intellectual property/data protection law. She has reported from Europe, the Middle East, South and Central Asia and North Africa. Jabeen holds a master’s degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. She was a Fulbright scholar in 2006. She founded Associated Reporters Abroad (ARA Network) in 2008 and currently serves as its managing editor, where she works with more than 100 reporters around the globe.