Documenting a year of grief

December 13, 2015

How does one make a documentary film on the first anniversary of the attack on Army Public School? How does one talk to the parents, what does one ask them and how does one live in peace after having spoken to them?

Documenting a year of grief

It was the most difficult assignment of my career. In the last 13 years of working in the media, I have covered suicide bombings, attacks on mosques, Imam barghas and even the devastating 2005 earthquake. But when I received a call from the head office, asking me to start working on this documentary film on the first anniversary of the attack on Army Public School, I had no idea it would leave me so shattered emotionally.

I was supposed to meet the parents of the children who were martyred on December 16 last year. Deciding to drop off my three year old daughter to school myself before leaving for Peshawar on December 1 seemed only logical.

While researching for the documentary, I discovered that all 144 martyred students had something extraordinary about them; each parents had a story worth sharing. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I could not interview all the parents. I picked parents of only seven children for my film.

I didn’t really know how would I actually get them to talk about this most painful episode that happened just a year ago. I wasn’t even thinking about it.

I instructed our coordinator in Peshawar to get in touch with the parents of six- year-old Khaula, the only minor girl to have been killed. I was informed her family hailed from Mansehra but lived in Peshawar as her father was teaching at APS.

I began shooting the documentary at Khaula’s house located right opposite APS Gate Number 2. I had prepared about four pages with 30 questions but when I asked Altaf Hussain, Khaula’s father, the first question I realised there was no way I could ask all the questions.

Khaula was in the principal’s office with her father for some documentation. It was her second day in school. Hearing gunshots, her father left Khaula with the principal to see what was happening outside. While he was trying to save himself from bullets, a bullet hit Khaula on her forehead and she succumbed to death right there. The terrorists had entered  Principal Tahira Qazi’s office and wanted to kill her and Khaula being in the same room became an unfortunate victim.

The real reason behind this documentary film is to let the people know the pain of the parents of these children. Though one year has passed, their wounds still haven’t healed. They are still waiting for the day terrorism and extremism are completely eliminated from Pakistan.

Khaula was the youngest of four siblings; she had two brothers and a sister. Her father describes her as his "Laadli". He feels there was something outstanding about her. "Once, she helped a girl who was very weak in studies but after Khaula’s help, she was among the top ten students of the class. She was just 6 but was a beacon of hope as she was a great supporter of girls education. Once she persuaded her neighbour professor to send his daughter to school."

You all must have heard the story of a mother who kept going to the school for three months after the tragic incident, carrying her child’s bag on her shoulder. This was Fahid Hussain, 13, the only son of Nawab Hussain and Seema Nawab. His father who is a hawaldar in the Pakistan Army says that Fahid wanted to be in the army like him.

His father was posted in Malakand when he received a call from his wife in the morning of December 16, 2014. He rushed back home. It was on way to Peshawar that his cousin informed him about the death of his only son.

Fahid prayed to God to give him brothers and sisters. Three days before his death, his father was going back to Malakand when Fahid requested him to leave his job and help his mother at home.

Each day his mother went to school looking for her son, the father would bring her back. Today, she is bed-ridden and chained, having lost her mental balance. We ask her to say something, even if in Pushto, but all she has is tears. Nawab Hussain looks after Seema Nawab just as Fahid had wished. The mother is also said to be pregnant with a child, just as Fahid had wished.

Nature does play some cruel tricks sometimes. How else should one explain Azaan Toraylay’s story who had performed a role of an Army Major in a school play some time before. In the play, he was injured with two bullets on the chest that resulted in his death. That unfortunate day, Azaan, 13, received two bullets on the chest just as he had received in the play.

He is also said to have discussed the vulnerability of APS with his sister and hinted at the exact side that the terrorists eventually chose to enter the school.

Azaan’s younger brother is also studying in APS and still remembers his fights with him. Azaan’s elder brother recalls that the day he died, Azaan promised to him that he would not never again drive the car in the mornings as he had warned him of the poor law and order situation in Peshawar. There wasn’t another time.

Muhammad Ali Khan, 15, was the only brother of three sisters. His mother says, "those who came to kill have died and who died in this attack are still alive".

Ali’s father narrates his memories of last Eid when he could not bring himself to offer the prayers "without him". He describes his son’s passion to become an SSG commando, being very fond of their training videos. "Since Ali wanted to be in the army so I was ready for it but not in this way".

Another strange story is that of Muhammad Yaseen, 15, the only son of his parents. Yaseen, who had two adopted sisters, was earlier kidnapped for seven days but was freed after paying the ransom money. His mother Afshan Asif holds herself responsible for his shahdat because "Yaseen wanted to take a day off from school." She shares his commitment to become a doctor to fulfill his mother’s wish, even though he was supposed to take over his family business.

Shagufta Tahir had two sons studying in APS. The younger son Shaheer, 16, died while Muneeb was miraculously saved. Shaheer wanted to have Chinese food for lunch and when his mother insisted that he should eat other foods too, he hugged her and said: "Don’t get angry Mama. I will eat everything now."

Muneeb fell underneath two dead bodies and pretended he was dead. While the terrorists were loading their magazines, he opened his eyes but was lucky they didn’t see him. Once the terrorists moved to another room, Muneeb proceeded quietly to some other room where he stayed till the end of the operation.

Mobeen Afridi, 16, was a big fan of Argentine footballer Messi. The only son of Dr Farooque Shah, Mobeen wanted to be a doctor like his father. He planned to build a hospital for the poor with his two sisters. Passionate about football, he wanted his father to help him go abroad to play football.

His mother describes his love for their pet parrots. When his sister tried to release them, they hid themselves in the cage. They still have them as a memory of their shaheed son.

From the day I started this documentary film till now, I don’t know how many times have I cried. While editing, each time I listen to the interviews of parents, especially mothers, I cry and pity myself for making a film that would make people cry.

But let me share the real reason behind this documentary film. It is to let the people know the pain of the parents of these children. Though one year has passed, their wounds still haven’t healed. They are still waiting for the day terrorism and extremism are completely eliminated from Pakistan.

Documenting a year of grief