Published in The Express Tribune

The last 16th December, a majority of us hadn’t been born. This 16th December, we wished we hadn’t been alive.

There aren’t any words. Words are for people and policies and the sounds of human commerce. Words can’t convey grief; they can’t bring back our children; they can’t capture the sound of things breaking.

Because Pakistan is broken. Not the ‘broken’ that brings to mind failed states and bomb blasts. We’ve lived with that.

Being this broken meant, all around us, grown men couldn’t stop crying. 16th December saw them break down in restaurants and office buildings, inside locked rooms and public parks and in front of their children. Being this broken meant we wondered at night whether we could get dressed in the morning.

Could we dare imagine the parents?

We couldn’t. As anyone who has buried their loved ones knows, grief is seldom straightforward.

Grief hits us in waves, in human spasms. Which is why we may remember 16/12 only in fragments: ‘There were trails of bullet wounds across children’s bodies,’ said a doctor at Lady Reading, ‘as if somebody had moved the gun along them while shooting.’

We think of the child that cried they would find him in his hospital bed. We think of the child that played dead, folding his school tie in his mouth to stop himself from screaming. We think of the child that whispered on the phone to ‘mama that I was fine‘, with a bullet in his chest. They are here with us now, and we hold them tight.

But we also think of 24-year-old Afsha Ahmed, a girl that stood up to trained animals, and told them they’d have to kill her first.

And we ask ourselves: how did we get to where we are?

During the school siege in Beslan, there was an official rationale: they were taking hostages to negotiate. It was made clear, as Pakistanis began screaming and screaming — over a death toll that crawled over a hundred, then to 141 — that we had no rationale to give one another.

They had hit naval bases and hotel lobbies and international airports before. They came to kill our children this time.

Because in a sick society, that’s all we have left: our children are our healers, the future cure to all our poisons. The Taliban understood that. If only we understood them.

When 2014 began, this country saw its first suicide attack on a school building. Aitzaz Hasan rushed at the attacker, tackled the bomb, and embraced God. He was 15 years old.

We thought the heart of this country was good, even as Mujahid Ali Bangash buried his son in the cold. We thought there would be Aitzaz Hasans to save all our souls — to make sure that evil would be overpowered, inches before it crossed its first threshold into its first classroom.

But as 2014 draws to a close, what was left of our hearts is broken. They did make it inside Army Public School. And they went from classroom to classroom, shooting at our babies’ bodies. It was an act of zulm, by Khwarij that call themselves students.

We were told the Taliban don’t hurt children. This has proven true: the Taliban slaughter children in sprees. In his maiden address, the Prime Minister said, ‘Hum apnay bachon ke mazeed janazay nahin utha saktay.’ There have been many addresses since, but the Prime Minister continues to condole us over killings he can’t seem to stop.

By killers he can’t seem to name.

For a man who manufactures steel, he may want to put some in his spine. This country has stopped working.

But let’s face it: just the act of bashing the leadership is, like all our A.P.C.s, an act of impotence. It is an indictment, when little children start sharing on their mobile phones, ‘Suna hai bohat sasta hai khoon wahan ka, ek basti jissay log Pakistan kehtay hain.’ It is an indictment, when our citizens say, ‘Phool dekhay thay janazon pay hamesha, kal pehli baar phoolon ka janaza dekha.’ And it is an indictment, when mothers leave their babies behind; when fathers bury their sons.

We can’t go on like this.

Going after the T.T.P. isn’t the endgame: it’s a first step. The second is going after all of them — making no distinction between them and all the other acronyms, including their sectarian cousins in the south. The third is going after ourselves: healing a cancer that has metastasised over 35 years this December.

It will take all of us: through reforming curricula, through regulating madrassa, to cleaning up policing, to patching together, piece by piece, the religious fissures that cripple this country.

But that’s for the long haul. In the short run, we need to stop airing the views of child murderers. Look at how we sound.

Because in the depths of darkness, we find certain truths. Indians telling Pakistanis they would walk across the border, to donate blood — Kailash Satyarthi begging the Taliban to spare the children, and take him instead. We find Afghans reeling in shock, and we see vigils and silences in Turkey. We find something of what we’ve always known: no one can break the spirit of Pakistan. Only Pakistanis can do that.

And broken we are. We’d heard of traumas in the past: when we were crippled by loss in ’47. We’d heard of hysteria in ’53. We’d heard how we lost to the darkest parts of ourselves in ’71. But we were there this time. We were witnesses on 16 December, 2014.

If darkness is measured by the depths of human misery, by the realisation that we can’t protect our children — by the sheer absence of light — then yes; this is our darkest hour. Because if these men are destined for heaven, we’re all better off in hell.

It is time, now, to look toward the better angels of our nature. And to those better angels we buried in Peshawar, with our dreams and hearts and happiness, we ask forgiveness.

We love you.

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