A tale of two brothers

Six months after the Peshawar school massacre, the wounds are still fresh

A tale of two brothers
On December 16, 2014, Sher Shah and Ahmed Shah left their home to attend classes at the Army Public School in the Peshawar Cantonment, just two kilometers from their home. Only Ahmed returned. Sher was killed along with 140 others. He was sixteen.

That morning, the Taliban militants jumped over the boundary wall in the back of the school, and laid siege to several buildings in the school compound. It was revealed later that the barbaric incident included indiscriminate firing into crowds of young children, and immolating teachers in front of their students. All in all, 141 people were killed, 132 of them children, in one of the most atrocious, heinous attacks in Pakistan’s history. The event forever changed the security landscape in Pakistan, leading to the National Action Plan (NAP) to combat terrorism and extremism.

Tufail Khattak, their father, was home that day. When news first broke out of a siege on television, he rushed to the school to try and find his boys. “It was madness,” he says. “The Army had cordoned off the area. Parents were clambering over one another to gain any information about their children.” In a state of confusion and panic, Khattak made calls to relatives and dispatched a few to the local hospitals, including Lady Reading Hospital and the Civil Military Hospital. “I saw parents receive news of their children’s death, people were crying, people were pleading for information, no one knew anything.”

Surviving Siblings – Ahmed and Ayesha
Surviving Siblings – Ahmed and Ayesha

A few hours later, Khattak received a call from his younger son, who had been rescued from a different gate at the school. Ahmed had borrowed a stranger’s phone and dialed his father. Khattak asked him if his brother was with him. “He was mostly incoherent, but he had not seen his brother, that much was clear. I can’t explain how that felt, knowing one of your sons is alive and the other is missing.” By this point in the siege, most of the children had been rescued by authorities. Those missing were steadily being reported as dead. “It took us a while to figure out where his body was,” says Khattak, composed and steady. “But I think I had known for a while before that. I had a feeling. It’s like a piece of my heart was suddenly missing.”

Sher Shah is survived by his parents, brother, and sister Ayesha. Khattak remembers him as a peer, an advisor, a confidante and a friend. Sher Shah was a history aficionado, voraciously consuming books on the subject. “He wanted to become a journalist. He used to say once he graduates high school, he would not study the sciences. He would learn how to do reporting.” Safiullah Gul, bureau chief for a private television channel remembers the boy fondly. “He used to come to my office often, always full of questions, always full of wonder. He asked questions endlessly, how things works, who was responsible for what role. His thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. And look, look how they murdered that poor boy in cold blood.”

Sher Shah’s room and belongs are in a locked room since the incident. Khattak does not permit anyone to enter the room, perhaps because it is the last remaining vestige of a life lost too soon. But the truth is simpler. “I don’t have the strength,” he says. “I don’t have the strength to see his things.”
"I don't have the strength to see his things"

Cool, calm and collected, you can still see the rage beneath the surface when Khattak speaks of the incident. Part of his anger is towards the authorities. The government compensated his family with Rs. 2 million, and he is thankful for the respect and dignity with which the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa government took this step. “They said this amount can never compensate for your loss, but we beg you to humbly accept it”, recounts Khattak. Before or since, no one from the government has contacted him or his family. Political leaders, he feels, turned the incident into a media opportunity, and never directly expressed their condolences to the grieving parents.

His disappointment also comes from a lack of government recognition. “My son sacrificed his life for this country. All the changes you see in Pakistan today, NAP, these military courts, this new push to eliminate terrorism, the path has been paved with my Sher’s blood.” Khattak claims the first call he received was not from the government, but from the Corps Commander Peshawar. The second time someone contacted him, it was to meet Chief of the Army Staff General Raheel Sharif. “He sat with us, and said he will not leave until he had satisfied each one of our questions and concerns, that he had cancelled all other plans, all other appointments. For me, the army did the job which the government should have done.”

Ahmad Shah, 14, is a quiet boy. He answers questions in a simple yes or no. He rarely speaks in full sentences, and sits with his head bowed, hands in his lap. Khattak is worried about Ahmed’s future, he is fearful for how Ahmed will compete with his peers. He thinks the government has since disowned the children and their families.

“He has not been himself since the incident. I can’t imagine what he has seen. I have never had the courage to ask him what he saw that day.” For two months after the event, a trauma unit run by Brigadier Rashid Qayyum conducted extended psychological therapy for Khattak’s family and other families like his, which is he profusely appreciates. “General Qayyum was the one who encouraged us to send Ahmed back to school, so he can get over his fears of that day. The dignity and respect with which they handled our case, and the patience with which they dealt with us, I am forever grateful.”

Ayesha, his daughter, brought in a picture of Sher Shah to show us. The sight of his martyred son was what finally broke this burly old man. His voice trembled, as he struggled to compose himself. No words can convey the depth of grief better than the quiet tears that poured down his face, and so none were said in the room, as everyone grieved in their way. Khattak wiped his tears on his shirt, and said in a shaky voice, “Please don’t ever forget the sacrifices of these children. Never forget what they have done for this country. Never forget. And never forgive.”