The 144 innocent shadows

As an Aitchisonian, I am plagued with pride. I had once believed for no institution to be better than Aitchison College but today- I will, with no regret or reluctance, write that it is indeed not the best institution of the world. For institutions are made by the students and the staff, not the fancy old buildings. The best school, in my opinion is that one branch of Army Public School that dealt with a thousand bullets, a hundred and fifty deaths, and still stood tall in the face of adversity.

Since I am an Army Brat, I have, like all other army brats had the privilege of starting school at Army Public School. It was my first, second, fifth and sixth school out of my continuing list of 12.

I recall the days when my mother would wake me up at seven and ask the batman (a caretaker in military families in Pakistan) to prepare lunch for me. As she would button up my white shirt, pull up my green tie with yellow stripes and then pin an orange badge onto my shirt, I would wait relentlessly to go and board the large mud green bus that that would soon arrive at the gate of my house. That orange badge was proof that I was part of one of the four beautiful houses of the school, namely discipline. Red was Unity, Blue faith, yellow was tolerance and orange was discipline house. I would get on, say “Salam” to the elderly bus driver and go sit on my usual seat in the third last row of the bus.

Soon, it wasn’t the same. When my parents were posted to another cantonment, and things had changed, I had to go to school in a van that carried about 10 students. The reason for this shift was one, security threat. Our Large mud green bus was an Army vehicle and fearing an attack, we were asked to move to a more hidden and less concealing vehicle. Nonetheless, our spirits to get to school never went down.

After another posting, and when things worsened even more, our vans had a security escort.We still went to school, and like any other child- celebrated our success and shed tears over daily issues.

One horrendous morning I refused to go to school with sheer reluctance. Despite my mother’s insistence, I convinced her that it was a “waste of time” to go to school that Thursday. She offered to let me off for the following day since it would be a half day but my reluctance triumphed. My siblings still went to school and I stayed at home. Honestly, a feeling of guilt started to pile up inside me and at 14:02, a local channel broke news that the army escort that was there for the protection of the children of local army officers had been attacked. A bomb attached to a motorcycle detonated as soon as the first military vehicle came close to it, leaving six people dead and 22 wounded. Three of them were soldiers and one of them a woman who must have made the worst decision of her life that day when she walked out into the market area of Shahbaz Town, Quetta. Fortunately, a forgotten doll had caused one of the two buses to stay behind and my sister and brother were lucky enough not to have departed just 5 minutes earlier. All of the students survived but our protectors did their job. Today, I salute them from the core of my heart. They did their job!

For once, I honestly fooled myself into believing that it was the worst that a son of an army personal could face.

My parents decided to send me off to my aunts house in Lahore. They hadn’t insisted, it was just me.  A kid who wanted to move away from an isolated city and dwell within the lights of Lahore. I shifted. Months later, the most prestigious school in the country sent me an acceptance letter and the following fall, I joined Aitchison College. To me it felt as if I had achieved the biggest feat in the world but to be honest, looking back a couple of years, I pity myself.

A year and 3 months later during our mid-year exams- horrific news shook the world. Some terrorists had entered Army Public School, Peshawar and martyred more than 150 people; 144 of whom were students my age and younger going down to 6 and 5 Years in age. I still recall the grief that plagued all the boarding houses that day. We came back from our exams and there was utter silence. The dinner table was more silent that I had ever seen it to be. Our exams, obviously, were postponed till after the winter break. Our parents were called that night and told to pick us up as soon as possible. Government leaders, after their facade dominated displays of grief, came up with new minimum security measures. Our school walls were to be raised, security systems to be updated, guards to be increased and what not.

I walked straight into the TV room that day after putting away my baggage and I remember the yellow silent uneasy perplexed look on my roommates face. He was stunned and as he told me more about the incident, so was I. The dining table was as silent as the empty night of the Cholistan dessert. No one spoke. No one even ate properly and we left with an inexplicable feeling of uneasiness. The house master, who was a retired army officer, looked as if he had seen the devil himself, but hadn’t he? Nearly all of us were home by the 19th of December, not to go back to school till end of January next year.

Not right now, nor then, I could imagine as to how those students would have adapted to the sudden change in climate. How would they have shifted from the annual inter house declamation competition to a sudden requirement to be united against a soulless enemy?

Since then I have always felt like I betrayed my friends. That I left the alone to suffer a suffering that was meant to be shared. I feel like a traitor.

Of hundreds of reasons that may take too long to pen, the most pertinent one is that of having failed my compatriots. One year ago, we bled. One year ago, everyone died a little inside. One year ago, everyone was united against this enemy but today again, we are the same point in time we were on the 7th of December last year.We are again the same, plagued with corrupt ideas and lying to ourselves.

But we are approaching that time of the year when the shadow of those 144 dead souls who stood tall at the face of some coward inhuman savage darken the days to a point beyond that of the night. I came across myself today, a normal student living a normal life without much complication and then a sudden revelation brought me back from this week’s long ephemerality. I realised that this one 16th was and will again be longer than these months that I have spent choosing to ignore it.

These are just two of the thousands of stories where our heroes triumphed over the enemy with the lives given away.

I will beg something of humanity today, from every different person, a different thing. From students to not take this moment for granted and work hard for many like us who won by losing their lives have lost the opportunity to do so anymore. From the parents, forgiveness. From the soldiers, acceptance of our gratitude. From others, to take a moment out for our heroes too. From the whole world, to learn.

This cannot be forgotten. This must not be forgotten!


The blogger – a student at Jerudong International School, Brunei – is the founder of the Religion Humanity Initiative and is the Literary Ambassador of Ashvamegh Journal. He can be reached at @SabeetRaza on Twitter.

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