By Mehreen Zahra-Malik
A shocked Pakistan on Wednesday began burying 132 students killed in a grisly attack on their school by Taliban militants that has heaped pressure on the government to do more to tackle the insurgency.
People across the country lit candles and staged vigils as parents bade final farewells to their children during mass funerals in and around Peshawar, the volatile city on the edge of Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt where the school was located.
Grief mixed with anger as people looked to the authorities – long accused of not being tough enough on extremists – to stem spiralling violence in a nation which has become a safe haven for al Qaeda-linked groups.
At a vigil in the capital Islamabad, Fatimah Khan, 38, said she was devastated by the atrocity.
“I don’t have words for my pain and anger,” she said. “They slaughtered those children like animals.”
Sixteen-year-old Naba Mehdi, who attends the Army School in the nearby garrison city of Rawalpindi, had a message of defiance for the Taliban.
“We’re not scared of you,” she said. “We will still study and fight for our freedom. This is our war.”
When asked what the government should do, her mother interrupted: “Hang them. Hang them all without mercy.”
In apparent response to public opinion after what may have been the deadliest militant attack in Pakistani history, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced he had lifted a moratorium on the death penalty.
The focus was also on Army Chief Raheel Sharif as he visited Afghanistan, where two sides whose relationship is strained after decades of mistrust were to discuss how to crack down on militants hiding on their common border.
Pakistanis may be used to almost daily attacks on security forces but an outright assault on children stunned the country, prompting commentators to call for a tough military response.
In all, 148 people were killed in the attack on the military-run Army Public School, according to the army.
The school’s sprawling grounds were all but deserted on Wednesday, with a few snipers manning the roofs of its pink brick-and-stone buildings. Army vehicles and soldiers wearing face masks and carrying rifles were deployed by the entrance.
BLOOD AND BODY PARTS
A Reuters tour of the school revealed a place shattered by hours of fighting, its floor slick with blood and walls pockmarked with bullet holes. Classrooms were filled with abandoned school bags, mobile phones and broken chairs.
One wall was smashed where a suicide bomber blew himself up, blood splattered across it. His body parts were piled nearby on a white cloth. The air was thick with the smell of explosives and flesh.
A day after the attack, Peshawar appeared subdued as people digested the tragedy. More details of the well-organised attack emerged as witnesses came forward with accounts.
“The attackers came around 10:30 a.m. on a pick-up van,” said Issam Uddin, a 25-year-old school bus driver.
“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.”
Sharif has announced three days of mourning, but people’s anxiety focused on what the authorities can do to protect them.
Sharif came to power last year promising to negotiate peace with the Taliban, but those efforts failed, weakening his position and prompting the army to launch an air-and-ground operation against insurgents along the Afghan border.
The military staged more air strikes there late on Tuesday in response to the school attack, security sources said, but it was unclear what the target was.
“GOOD AND BAD” TALIBAN
Despite the well-publicised crackdown, the military has been accused of being too lenient towards militants who critics say are used to carry out the army’s bidding in places like the disputed Kashmir region and Afghanistan.
The military denies the accusations.
“People will have to stop equivocating and come together in the face of national tragedy,” said Sherry Rehman, a former ambassador to the United States and an opposition politician.
The Pakistani Taliban, who are fighting to impose strict Islamic rule in Pakistan, are holed up in mountains straddling the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
They are allied with the Afghan Taliban as well as al Qaeda and other foreign fighters, and Pakistan has long accused Afghanistan of not doing enough to crack down on their bases.
Afghanistan, for its part, blames Pakistan for allowing militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network to operate freely on its territory.
Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper quoted a source saying 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.