Peshawar’s truth seekers

Published in The Express Tribune

It would take the hardest heart to not be moved by Fazal Khan last week. Mr. Khan was protesting against officials federal and provincial, a year to the day of the A.P.S. massacre. To his credit, Imran Khan invited the grieving parent to the podium.

But while we hail the gesture itself, it may be best to focus on what it was supposed to achieve in the first place: lending the man a hearing. What cruelty that a parent’s sobs be drowned out by the bells and whistles marking his child’s death. That soul-crushing December, Mr. Khan’s son, Sahibzada Umer, lost his life. He was 14 years old.

Yet all his father wanted a year later, he said, was justice. Mr. Khan had no time for somber ceremonies – he called it all a ‘drama’. And as a man with nothing left to lose, Mr. Khan demanded answers from all: Prime Minister Sharif to P.T.I. chair Imran Khan, provincial speaker Asad Qaiser to police chief Nasir Durrani.

And not a soul can blame him – a year since 16/12, we are so little wiser. And those whose lives have changed the most – parents of the victims – only want the truth.

Today, we’re as lost as we were that winter morning: we don’t know whether the six attackers were ‘all foreign’ – an assortment of Arabs and Chechens and Afghans – or, as we’re now told, local as local can be: Pashto-speakers from Peshawar and Khyber and Mohmand Agencies.

Nor do we know how many there were. On the same morning, reports tell us, ten other suicide bombers were nabbed by intelligence agencies, though public knowledge is largely limited to the six men inside.

We don’t even know the exact identities of our killers; the very reason the parents weep they want to see their faces and hear them confess. In the immediate aftermath, we were told it was the Tawheed al-Jihad group, an obscure if not unheard-of outfit.

Finally, Fazlullah claimed responsibility in a video address, blood dripping from his jaws. But we’re told the real mastermind was Umar Mansoor, whom the press revealed in bursts of bizarre factoids: a ‘kindly’ father of three, and fond of volleyball (was the aim to humanize this gargoyle?).

And subsequent sackings don’t give us cause for confidence either. Yes, a school full of students is the softest of soft targets, and 19 threats, on average, are reported in Peshawar each day. But there was advance warning the Taliban had threatened the army public schools as far as back as April. Heads haven’t rolled; no admin from the civilian or military spheres have been (publicly) sent home. The right questions aren’t being asked.

Which is why the judicial inquiry is a public need – Peshawar’s parents must be given the truth.

Inquiries aside, it’s time to act on what we do know. We now know that the killers planned the attack in Afghanistan. We also know that the rapid response hemmed the attackers in – with heroes like Naik Muhammad Altaf throwing himself before gunfire – and stopped the slaughter of hundreds more. And we know the state’s performance in the year since: half-measures in ways half-hearted.

Yes, the Taliban have been battered: it’s no exaggeration that Pakistan had once ceded much of Waziristan to wild animals. And on the basis of improving security indicators (should we take that as a measuring cast) General Sharif is on track to becoming the most successful chief in recent memory.

But there is a difference between taking back territory and clearing the swamp. For the first part, we needed the Zarb-e-Azb blitz. For the second, we needed everything else: a civilian project that would cut the cancer out.

That would mean making the police worthy of our first line of defence in urban centres; it would mean clamping down on those that preach hate in our madrassahs; it would mean nudging Nacta awake; it would mean extending our school curriculum beyond the lore of Ghazna; it would mean striking at the sectarian zombies in Southern Punjab; it would mean depriving Abdul Aziz of his liberty, not his cellular service.

And it would mean bringing Kabul in from the cold: of what little information we have, one thing is clear – the masterminds are still at large. Fazlullah and Mansoor are in Afghanistan, and it is only in a stable, secure Afghanistan that Pakistan will find a partner in.

Without the above, we’re left with a gardening metaphor from another paper’s editorial: that this surge is akin to mowing the lawn, only to watch the grass grow back again.

But before all else, to tear out the roots we must first look inward. We have succeeded in ‘other-izing’ the fight: aliens in Swat, demon tattoos in Peshawar, a shower of Raw funding and Mossad shekels. Yet the enemy is of us and among us.

The tragedy is not our ignorance. The tragedy is, deep down, we know this already. We know, once the haze of conspiracy fades, who the enemy is and what their names are. And we are too fearful to say them.

May we have op-eds as clear-eyed as Feisal Naqvi’s: ‘In the last one year, how much have we been told about Fazlullah and the T.T.P.? The answer: not very much. Nobody discusses the fact that Fazlullah has been leading a revolt against the state since 2002,’ he wrote. ‘Nobody discusses the fact that the state of Pakistan once handed over Swat to Fazlullah and his father-in-law.’

Mr. Naqvi brought in the Voldemort rule: ‘“fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.” And if there is any one thing that we owe to the memory of the 144 martyrs, it is to have the courage to name and shame their killers.’

No doubt there is a yawning chasm between Fazal Khan’s grief and the will of the state: it can only start by naming the murderers, by answering the right questions via inquiry, and by turning the National Action Plan inwards at last.

Until that day, we may only read the words on banners across the country this December, and feel our eyes burn in shame:

Hamara khoon bhi shaamil hai taraeen gullistan mein

Humein bhi yaad kar lena chaman mein jab bahaar aaye.