Blood cleaned, walls raised, Peshawar school waits for Monday

The Indian Express , January 12, 2015

By Riaz Ahmad & Ali Haider Habib

On December 19, media offices in Peshawar received a one-line press release: “We washed the entire building of Army Public School and cleaned it — Bilal Faizi, Rescue 1122.”

Nearly a month later, the school that saw 150 deaths after gunmen stormed it on December 16 will reopen on Monday. For some time, it may remain without a principal. The last one, Tahira Qazi, was among those killed in the brutal attack. Newspapers have been running advertisements seeking a “qualified” applicant.

A boundary wall is being built anew while the height of the ones still standing is being raised. Another new boundary wall separates the visitors from the main building.

A security audit has been carried out in schools and colleges, their representatives and district education officials have been briefed on new security guidelines, while a ‘One Click’ SOS system has been introduced for schools to alert law enforcement personnel in case of an emergency.

And, as the reopening date nears, there is an overwhelming consensus among parents to send their children back to class.

However, the question on everyone’s lips is, come January 12, how much of the above would be enough?

Washed of blood, the school walls are still pockmarked by bullets. The corridors echo the sound of any small step, and it is difficult to imagine children running down them two days from now.

They would be walking past hundreds of people who still converge at the school every day. Some light candles, others chant slogans, but most of them stand there and just quietly weep.

On the main gate hangs a photograph with the words ‘Shaheed Wasif Ali Khan, Class 8’. Near it hangs another photo identified as that of ‘Huzaifa Aftab’. Dozens other such pictures and posters bearing messages surrounded by flowers crowd the gate.

Twelve workers of Rescue 1122, the largest emergency humanitarian service of Pakistan, were assigned the task of cleaning up the Army Public School. They have seen the city through countless acts of terror. However, they were not prepared for what they would encounter at the school, including cleaning the blood that was everywhere, and helping the military collect parts of human flesh from among toys and schoolbooks.

Rescue 1122’s spokesperson Faizi says it was the most difficult job of their lives. “It was not only exhausting as we worked non-stop for three days, but our guys were so emotional they were crying as they went about their jobs,” he told The Sunday Express. “What do you do when you find a toy painted red in blood? There was blood everywhere: on the walls, furniture, and of course, on the floor. These innocent children tried to take cover, but they had nowhere to hide and this realisation made you cry even more.”

The soldiers deployed at the school have been fighting tears too. “I saw two women enter the gate; they suddenly spotted blood on the floor and started crying. One of them bent down and started kissing the congealed blood. Then I realised she had lost her child. She saw an armyman pass by and attacked him with one question which she kept repeating: ‘You collected Rs 1,200 per month as security fee from each child. Where was your security? Why are you standing here now to protect these ruins?’. She was finally taken away by her relatives, but everyone who was there started weeping,” says a soldier standing outside the school.

Khalid Shahzad, a psychologist and director of Dorothea Center for Special Children, Lahore, is one of the peace activists who visited the school. “These children need special psychological treatment on war footing,” he worries, adding that one thing the parents could do was to take their children to recreational spots in the scenic northern areas to take their minds off the tragedy.

“There are different kinds of people. Some of the children are brave and less sensitive; they will overcome this tragedy of having seen their friends being killed. But it will take years for the most sensitive ones to overcome the shock.”

Shahzad says fear is like a room and these children and parents have been locked inside that dark room. “Treatment is a slow process for these children. This place has a special significance in the lives of the survivors and they should be taken to the rooms of the school’s building to help them deal with the trauma.”

Parents whose children died in the attack have formed an organisation that met on Thursday. They asked that schools be named after their children.

An official of the Pakistan Army says psychologists from the force were engaged in the rehabilitation efforts too.

Javed, 12, is among those who visits the school everyday since his house is just a stone’s throw away. “We were in the classroom when the firing started. We were really afraid. Then we saw some people who had guns in their hands walk past our room, firing. Our teacher told us to lie on the floor and hide behind the desks. We did so, and were rescued by soldiers after two and a half hours,” says the Class VI student. “My friend Taimur from Class IX was killed. He was shot in the head.”