'Execution Orgy': Pakistan Learns from a Brutal Terrorist Attack
One year ago, Taliban attackers stormed a school in Peshawar and killed over 130 children. Since then, the government and military have begun taking security seriously. Many say the country has changed for the better.
On that awful day one year ago, Naeem Mumtaz lost his wife -- and to this day he is trying to find something that could provide consolation for the horrific act that destroyed his family. "If the situation in our country is improved because of the blood shed by our loved ones, then their deaths are not entirely senseless," he says.
Mumtaz is sitting in his office in the Lady Reading Hospital in downtown Peshawar, the metropolis in the north of Pakistan. He is wearing a gray suit coat over the traditional Shalwar Kameez, a knee-length cotton shirt with Turkish trousers. He tiredly rubs his eyes.
As a surgeon in in Peshawar, Mumtaz had encountered terror long before it struck his own family. Until a year ago, bombs were exploding in the city's markets and suicide bombers were blowing themselves up in mosques and churches almost every day. Because the incidents often occurred in the city center, the Lady Reading Hospital became specialized in treating victims of gunfire and explosions.
"Terror was so commonplace here that the bazaars were open again and people were going about their business by the next day," says Mumtaz. "There was no time to mourn."
But on Dec. 16, 2014, a group of at least six men armed with guns and explosive vests burst into the Army Public School in Peshawar. They shot and killed some 150 people, including more than 130 children. It was one of the worst acts of terror in the country's history, and it changed Pakistan. Since then, the country has become safer, a view that is not just shared by Naeem Mumtaz.
Prior to last December, Pakistanis had largely responded to terrorist attacks with frustrating apathy. But the slaughter once year ago shook the country. Religious conservatives had often sympathized with extremists, while others were too afraid to speak up due to the frequency with which critics of the militants had been intimidated or murdered in the past. But when it became clear that the Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the attack, was willing to stop at nothing, not even the murder of children, everyone seemed to recognize that something had to change.
Shooting Everyone in Sight
Peshawar is a seething city, chaotic and loud. Power cables hang loosely above the streets, and there are small fires burning everywhere to keep people warm in cool December temperatures. Because of the city's proximity to Afghanistan, thousands of refugees from the neighboring country and the Pakistani tribal areas have come to Peshawar, fleeing the Taliban, violence by the military and the US drone war. The city had a population of 250,000 in the early 1970s, but today it has more than 10 times as many people.
The terrorists arrived in a Suzuki van on the morning of the attack, parked the vehicle near a cemetery and set it on fire. According to security officials, the killers were all foreigners: Arabs, Afghans and one Chechen. They climbed a wall into the adjacent schoolyard and immediately began shooting everyone in sight.
Amir Amin was sitting in a computer class, taught by Shahnaz Mumtaz, the surgeon's wife. Amin, a bearded, 20-year-old man, says: "We heard the loud noises outside, but we didn't think it was anything at first." Gunfire is a common occurrence in Pakistan, especially at weddings and other ceremonies. "But when we realized it was getting louder and louder, we went and looked down from the second floor to the auditorium, where many students were sitting at the time." The teacher locked the door at the last minute, Amin says, but the attackers shot their way in.
The school isn't just open to the children of military officers. Anyone who can afford the tuition of 5,000 rupees a month, or about 40 ($44), is welcome as well.
The attackers shot at anything that moved. "It was a downright execution orgy," says Amin. "There was blood everywhere, people were screaming and there were bodies lying motionless on top of each other." The terrorists moved from room to room, first shooting randomly into the room and then walking down the rows of desks, always targeting the heads of students. "At some point, I was surrounded by nothing but my dead fellow students. They had all been shot in the head."
The teacher and wife of the surgeon, Shahnaz Mumtaz, died before the eyes of her students. A bullet struck Amin in the hip. "Then I played dead." His brother, who was in the auditorium, was shot in the face and later died, after a few weeks in a coma.
A Safe Haven for Insurgents
Naeem Mumtaz was working in the operating room that morning. "When I looked at my mobile phone at around noon, I saw that I had dozens of missed calls. That was when I found out about the terrorist attack." He quickly found his son, who had not been injured, but he only learned that his wife was dead that evening, when his brother discovered the body in a hospital.
When the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came into office in June 2013, it began pushing for peace talks with the Taliban. But after increasingly brutal attacks in the following year, such as an attack on the Karachi airport on June 8, 2014, the government could no longer resist pressure from the military to take action. It gave the go-ahead for a military operation in North Waziristan, a safe haven for insurgents.
Since the attack on the school, the military finally has free rein to do everything it considers necessary to provide security. Thousands of soldiers were withdrawn from the eastern border with Pakistan's archenemy India and sent to fight the extremists. Military operations throughout the country were greatly expanded, and according to the armed forces, more than 2,700 militants were killed and thousands forced to flee into Afghanistan.
The army is now more popular than ever. "The military is doing an excellent job," says Naeem Mumtaz, the surgeon from Peshawar. "It deserves most of the credit for the fact that our country is finally safer."
After the school attack, the government lifted a moratorium on the death penalty imposed in 2008. Three days later, the first two prisoners who had been condemned to death were hanged, and more than 300 people have been executed since then. A national action plan was put in place, consisting of 20 counterterrorism measures. They included a reform of Koran schools, tighter controls on the flow of money and harsher punishments for hate speech. Provisional military tribunals were introduced and terrorist cases were processed more quickly.
The statistics show that the government and military strategy has been a success. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, by early December of this year, terrorists had killed 875 civilians in Pakistan, compared to 1781 in 2014 and 3001 in 2013.
Pakistan's cities have rarely felt as safe as they do today. People are flooding into shopping malls, visiting markets and going to newly opened restaurants, cafés and movie theaters. After years of terror, Pakistanis are hungry for a normal life. Hotels, previously abandoned even in the high season, are suddenly booked solid, even in remote regions of the Himalayas. The International Monetary Fund is praising Pakistan's once chronically ailing economy for its 4.1 percent growth today.
'All Power to the Military!'
On the other hand, cities are more like fortresses than ever before. There are guards armed with submachine guns on every street corner and soldiers positioned behind walls of sandbags at intersections, their rifles pointed at cars on the street. Video cameras were recently installed on all major streets in Islamabad. And walls and barbed wire surround almost every school in the country.
It remains to be seen how sustainable these measures are. Could the extremists return, after many of them fled to Afghanistan and other parts of Pakistan? Doesn't a large percentage of the population still have Islamist sympathies and want to see Sharia as the most important pillar of the legal system?
Army chief Raheel Sharif is Pakistan's new superstar. His personality cult is so extreme that young people have the general's portrait tattooed on their upper arms and shipping companies have his face painted on their trucks. The words "We love Raheel Sharif" are plastered onto giant billboards on highways in Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi. A businessman in Islamabad hung a banner in front of his building that read: "All Power to the Military! Long Live General Raheel Sharif!"
The army chief, already effectively the most powerful man in the country, took advantage of the terrorist attack to expand his power. He now claims full power to make decisions on questions of foreign and security policy.
The media are also expected to defer to the new power of the armed forces. "We are pressured to merely repeat the army's press releases," says a journalist in Peshawar who declined to be identified by name. "There are no reports of dead civilians and torture, merely stories about extremists who were targeted and killed, and about successes in the fight against terrorists."
The army doesn't want to talk about the fight against extremists, or about the attack on the school in Peshawar. It merely cites the numbers of extremists that have allegedly been killed. An employee of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the military intelligence agency, claims: "We have proof that India is behind the attack on the school." When he was asked to provide proof, he said: "No, it's top secret."
Taliban Loss of Support
We meet with a representative of the Taliban in an empty country house near the border with Afghanistan. A senior commander arrives an hour late, doesn't give his name and doesn't allow photos. We are also not allowed to divulge where exactly the meeting took place, such are the conditions for the interview.
"We didn't want to kill the children," he insists. "That was not the original plan. But then our people came under fire from soldiers, and they had no choice but to defend themselves."
The statement contradicts all reports of eyewitnesses, who said that the militants immediately began shooting the children in the head. And why were the militants wearing explosive vests? "So that no one would dare approach them," says the Taliban commander. Such attempts to justify its actions reveal that the Pakistani Taliban has lost a great of support in the country since the attack. Even the Afghan Taliban has said critically that killing children is "un-Islamic."
"Who protests when our children are killed by the Pakistani military or US drones?" the Taliban commander asks. He admits that there was even criticism from within his own ranks at first. "We had to spend four or five months reassuring our fighters and explaining to them that this attack was not counter to Islam. Killing children is only un-Islamic if it is done intentionally. That wasn't the case here," he claims.
That was why they launched a campaign, he says, to reassure the critics in their own ranks. "We disseminated photos of our own dead children in social media," he says. "We asked Allah for forgiveness of our sins and we donated money. We don't care what the rest of the world thinks."
The Army Public School in Peshawar is closed to visitors today, and the military refuses to grant journalists access -- "for security reasons," they say. A higher wall with barbed wire and surveillance cameras on top has been built around the grounds and there are heavily armed men in uniform posted at the entrances. Boys in green school uniforms play around in front of them. Only on the anniversary of the attack will the public be given access. Officials will then be eager to show the world the brightly painted walls and the children absorbed in their lessons and playing in the schoolyard during breaks.
Mohammed Tariq has been the director of the Army Public School for one year; he took over for the former principal, who was shot to death by the Taliban in the attack. A pair of reading glasses is dangling from Tariq's neck, and he is wearing a gray coat and a red tie. He meets with us in a heavily guarded hotel near the school.
"We all sense that life has become safer in Peshawar since the attack," he says, noting that there are suddenly smiling people in the streets again. "This oppressive, anxious mood, the concern that another bomb could explode at any moment, is now gone. Who knows, perhaps a better, happier chapter is beginning for Peshawar." The bazaars have recently become much busier, and the roads are constantly jammed, he says.
On Dec. 16, when parents of the children, family members of the victims, politicians, military officials and journalists visit the school, three plaques -- engraved with the names of the dead and adorned with silver doves -- will be unveiled.
The hundreds of bullet holes inside the building were covered up long ago. The red brick auditorium, with its curved, white ceiling, is now a gymnasium. "We let the children play here," says Mohammed Tariq, with a laugh. "They play in precisely the location where the terrorists wanted to strike at us. Isn't that a nice picture? We are still here, we continue to go about our business, and we look to the future with confidence."
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