Peshawar was up in flames for around three decades from the beginning of the Afghan war. But it was only on black Tuesday – December 16, 2014 – after the attack on the Army Public School (APS), that the city finally burnt.
A city of flowers witnessed funerals of flowers. Charts bearing information on the funeral timings of innocent children who had been mercilessly killed were put up at each street of the city. The residents of Peshawar all grieved for the victims regardless of whether they were related to these children or not. Relatives of martyred children visited the Combined Military Hospital (CMH) in Peshawar to collect the bodies of their children and were horrified to see bullet-riddled bodies lined up to be collected.
People were seen crying publicly. It seemed as if there was a funeral in every home. Horrifying stories of the killing of children spread through the city. The parents of the children narrated stories of how their beloved children were killed, reducing listeners to tears.
Although no one asked them to, shopkeepers did not open their shops for several days. Marriage ceremonies were cancelled. People did not know how to handle their grief and feeling of helplessness. Death and destruction was not new for Peshawar but the cold-blooded killing of innocent children of this scale was never witnessed in history.
It is believed that whatever happens in Kabul affects Peshawar. At the beginning of the Afghan war, three decades back, a government school was blown at Ghari Qamar Din near Peshawar, killing hundreds of children. Major blasts included the 2009 Meena Bazaar blast where around 150 people died.
A blast at the All Saints Church at Kohati Gate killed 120 worshipers in 2013. Terrorists have not even spared mosques, prayer gatherings, and funeral prayers.
Dealing with these tragedies became routine for the residents of Peshawar and they continued with their business activities as per usual. But the massacre at the APS broke their backs and a feeling of helplessness and grief affected them deeply.
The residents of Peshawar love their city, almost as a part of their faith. At the time of Partition, Peshawar was overwhelmingly inhabited by peace-loving, Hindko-speaking people called Peshawaris. They wanted to live and die in Peshawar. For any Peshawari, leaving Peshawar and living anywhere else was unthinkable. When they were out of Peshawar, they cried for Peshawar as Jews cried for Jerusalem. Before the partition, a Peshawari went to the Bombay Railway Station and asked a clerk for a ticket for ‘the city’. The clerk asked which city he was referring to and the Peshawari said, “There is only one city in the whole world and that is Peshawar”. Famous films legend Dilip Kumar, who was born in Peshawar, once said: “I wished I [had] not left Peshawar and paid a huge price for leaving”.
Even when new residential schemes, such as Nishterabad, Gulbahar, and Hayatabad were started, most of the Peshawaris did not want to leave the walled city and their way of living. Later on, Pakhtuns also arrived at Peshawar but the Peshawaris’ love for the city is reflected in their songs that praise Peshawar.
Peshawar witnessed many ups and downs in history. The Sikh rule was particularly cruel for the city and people were hanged on minarets of famous Mahabbat Khan Mosque. Peshawar under the British rule prospered and cantonment areas and new gardens were added. The city was also connected with the rest of India by train.
During the British rule, thousands of Peshawari residents sold their properties and migrated to Afghanistan following the unwise appeal of Muhammad Ali Johar of the Khilafat Movement. These people lost everything when they came back to Peshawar. Later, peace prevailed until the beginning of the Afghan war.
The APS tragedy will always be remembered by the residents of Peshawar and will keep reminding people of how innocent children and teachers were killed and the state could not protect them.
At a recent function in Peshawar, Shumaila, mother of Asfand Khan, who died in the massacre, narrated the suffering of the families of martyred children. She mentioned that the parents of martyred children are suffering from fatal diseases, such as cancer, and psychological disorders. It is the duty of the state and the society to take care of these families because they lost their beloved children during the war on terrorism in Pakistan.
The writer is a Peshawar-based academic.