Published in The Express Tribune – cover art by Omar G.

Sixty-six years since Pakistan’s birth, 6 January saw its first-ever suicide attack… on a school building. An adult male showed up at the gate with a bomb strapped over his sick heart, and tried to murder 2,000 children inside. For being Shia.

Numb in the face though we’ve become, consider for a second what that means. The killer isn’t a freedom fighter crying occupation. He’s not a teenager hiding behind lax gun laws. He’s not motivated by money, in fact, he’s not motivated by anything in this world at all.

This isn’t about terror. This isn’t about whether wars on terror are ours or theirs. This is about sectarian cleansing: a cancer that has spread from the plains of the south to the mountains of the north. This sickness was born in Southern Punjab, and over the past 30 years has gone national.

As of 6 January, that’s the state of the nation we find ourselves in. Foreign correspondents tried their best to make the place sound rational: Hangu was ‘a sensitive area’, and the whole country was ‘rife with sectarian clashes’ anyway, they wrote. Why even try.

It was an organised attempt at mass-murdering children.

And the light in all this? That it was upset by another child, for the sole reason he was late to school in the morning. It seems each time Pakistan looks to tear itself apart, another Pakistani steps up and saves its soul.

One of our braver writers, Zarrar Khuhro wrote, ‘The words do not flow now, there are no cutting comments or quotes, no wit, and even less wisdom. There is only a deep sorrow, and an even deeper rage.’ Anyone who’s seen a picture of Aitzaz Hasan, who’s heard his father call his 15-year-old boy a shaheed, who’s felt rage and hate and nausea at the impotence of this state, would understand. Because every time one hears what this beautiful human being did, it only gets harder to make sense of.

We know the story now. It was a Monday morning, and like so many teenagers on so many Monday mornings that came before, Aitzaz didn’t make it to school on time. As punishment, he wasn’t allowed into morning assembly, and made to wait outside.

There are several accounts of what he said next — what he did is undisputed. He stood outside the school gate, saw the approaching killer, and spotted the bomb. His friends ran inside; Aitzaz ran at the killer. He embraced the bomber, embraced shahadat, and ultimately embraced God.

We were told it was different, or that it would be different, 2014. We knew 2013 started with bombs ripping through some of the most decent human beings Pakistan could be proud of, once in January, and again in February, as people reeled from shock to rage to shock again.

No single event last year burned itself into our brains than the twin attacks on Quetta’s Hazaras — mothers and brothers of shuhada sitting in the freezing air of Alamdaar Road, waiting for redress that never came. Here we are a year later, two steps back.

And the discussion? Whether civilians merit Nishan-e-Haiders. But if words mean anything, then ‘Nishan-e-Haider’ — the mark of the Lion of God — leaves little room for argument. To be awarded the Sitara-i-Shujaat is an achievement of a lifetime… Aitzaz’s life is still meant for more.

It may be asked whether any of this is relevant. Honouring the Nishan with Aitizaz won’t bring him back. But for a nation that’s stopped celebrating its war dead, it will teach generations of children that another child did die saving them. Which is why no number of trust funds and scholarships and colleges in his name will be too many.

In his maiden address, the prime minister said, ‘Hum apnay bachon ke mazeed janazay nahin utha saktay.’ We’ll never know whether the P.M.’s address reached Aitzaz in Hangu — we do know it didn’t have to. He felt those nine words in his marrow; he needed no A.P.C.s, no talks about talks, no hearts-and-minds campaigns, no sound bites and crisis reports. He saw a suicide vest, and threw himself at it.

It’s no coincidence that the new face of Pakistani sacrifice is as young as Aitizaz’s. Look at the generation that’s come before. Forget capacity building or militancy countering, Governance 2014 is about I.M.F. tranches and V.I.P. movements and kicking idle sons into the family business. Again, the light in all this? That Aitzaz Hasan is on the right side of history; the hyenas in parliament are not.

Someone once said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ A hundred years from now — and Pakistan will be standing a hundred years from now — today’s men in waistcoats will be surrendering, self-pitying footnotes.

From the Chamberlains of the left, to the Judases of the right, they gave up or gave in, and it takes the raw heroism of a teenage boy to show just how gutless they are.

‘My cousin wanted to become a doctor, but it wasn’t God’s will,’ Mudassair Bangash said. If saving thousands of lives was part of the job description, then perhaps it was God’s will after all. All this would bring tears to the eyes, if there were any left to shed.

It took a novelist to tell us, ‘Pakistan produces people of extraordinary bravery. But no nation should ever require its citizens to be that brave.’ No nation should require its schoolchildren to save its schools either; to have students stand in the way of its suicide bombers. And no nation should have its fathers bury their sons.

God bless Mujahid Ali Bangash, who’d rather be congratulated for his son’s shahadat than condoled over his death. The world is proud, if brokenhearted. But our pride is covered in guilt.

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