The families of the martyred and wounded students of the Army Public School (APS), Peshawar have often been in news since that fateful day last December when six suicide bombers stormed the school and killed 147 persons, including 122 schoolchildren, and caused injuries to 125.
Initially, the families were active individually or in small groups as they interacted with the civil and military authorities and the media to highlight their pain caused by the unprecedented tragedy. Gradually, many of them formed an organisation, Shuhada Forum (martyrs forum) to campaign for their rights. However, a group of families later developed differences with the leadership of the Shuhada Forum and set up the Ghazi Forum to serve as the platform for the injured survivors of the APS attack. A third, nameless platform was subsequently established by another group of families that became fed up with the activities of the two forums and didn’t want anyone to exploit the sacrifices of their slain and injured children for personal interest.
These forums are now operating separately and claiming to have representative status. This has certainly weakened their cause. The split has also made the task of the government difficult as it has to deal with more than one organisation.
The splintering of the forums claiming to represent the bereaved and aggrieved APS families was unfortunate as they had suffered together but were unable to share the platform for highlighting their genuine grievances.
Both the civil and military officials have been cautiously explaining the steps they have taken to offer relief to the affected APS families. Mindful of not offending these families and taking care to honour their tremendous sacrifices, the officials have on occasions enumerated the help that was offered to them. However, they are sometimes baffled by the criticism made by some of the families and yet feel helpless to reply publicly due to the concern that this could cause further problems. The situation at times prompted the authorities not to invite some of the leaders of the forums to official functions. On certain occasions, the members of some of the families staged protests against the ruling elite, including Imran Khan whose party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), is in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
At one recent event in Peshawar, military officials explained the steps taken todate to provide succour and relief to the APS families affected by the December 16, 2014 tragedy. A crisis management cell was immediately set up in the 11th Corps Headquarters in Peshawar to handle the issues arising out of the school attack and interact with the parents and other family members. One of the first challenge the army faced was the claim that it was hiding deaths. Wild figures of the death toll were mentioned, but never corroborated. The military acted wisely by allowing the members of the local and foreign media to visit the APS the day after the attack. The access to the school helped build up a strong narrative against the militants and put an end to some of the rumour-mongering.
Corps Commander Peshawar, Lt Gen Hidayat ur Rahman, visited the houses of the martyred and the wounded persons and met all the parents on December 26, 2014. When he interacted again with the parents on January 6, 2015 and February 12, he explained the steps taken to hunt-down the sponsors and facilitators of the attack and showed pictures of the detained men. As one security official pointed out, the briefing given to the parents was in violation of rules, but was done to reassure them and address their concerns. Quran Khwani was arranged for the deceased APS students, teachers and other staff members and later an Iftar party was hosted by Corps Commander during Ramazan.
A rehabilitation centre was set up at the Combined Military Hospital, Peshawar on December 18, 2014 to cater to the psycho-social needs of the traumatised families and students. It is still operational. One method of offering further psycho-social treatment to the surviving students and families of the slain children was to send 865 of them on a spiritual journey to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah. The army paid for the cost of the Umrah package availed by three members of the family of every martyred student along with all the injured students plus two members of each one’s family.
The army also offered jobs to the next of kin of those martyred at the APS. The offers were made to 21 persons with 11 taking up the offer and 10 declining to do so. Free education was also offered to the affected families at the APS and admission was secured for the surviving students in an educational institution, including cadet and professional colleges of their choice provided they met the criteria. To achieve the needed merit to become eligible for admission in prestigious institutions such as Army Medical College and the NUST, the students were even offered tuition courses.
Another initiative to enable the traumatised students to overcome the memory of the school tragedy was to send a number of them on foreign visits with the cooperation of friendly countries. Until now, 45 students and some teachers have made two educational-cum-sight-seeing visits to China, 43 to Oman, 41 to Turkey and 15 to the US. A visit to Tajikistan is in the planning stage along with another one possibly to Sweden.
The KP government has renamed 103 schools and three roads after the martyred students to honour their memory and sacrifice. In neighbouring Fata, five government schools have been renamed after the slain students. One school in Balochistan and 10 in Punjab have also been renamed after the martyred APS students belonging to the two provinces. The Punjab government also sent 1,370 laptops for distribution among the APS students, teachers and other employees to keep the promise made by Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s wife Tehmina Durrani. She has also promised to build 10-marla houses for the affected families.
As for cash compensation, the KP gave Rs2 million each to the next of kin of every martyred student, teacher and staff member. The army has its own system of compensating its personnel, three of whom were killed by the APS attackers and 11 were injured.
Civil awards were also conferred on the martyred students and teachers. Tahira Qazi, the martyred APS principal who stayed back to be with her students when she could have easily escaped, and teacher Saima Zareen Tariq who was burnt alive by the terrorists, were awarded the gallantry award Sitara-i-Shujaat carrying Rs800,000 monetary prize. The rest of the martyred students, teachers and staffers were given Tamgha-i-Shujaat which comes with a monetary prize of Rs600,000.
The strengths and weaknesses of the human nature became evident as the government and philanthropists opened their hearts and wallets to help the affected families. Some took pride in the sacrifice of their children for the nation while a few exhibited greed. There was a family that refused to accept the compensation package and wanted it to be given to the needy. There were families that wanted their injured children to be treated abroad and one reportedly sought asylum after landing in the West for treatment.
Some families are still demanding a proper judicial inquiry and one of the forums of the affected families has come up with a charter of 15 demands. All those bereaved cannot be satisfied and no amount of compensation could relieve the pain of families that lost a loved one. However, the way the nation and the affected families handled the APS tragedy offered glimpses of the resilience of the people of Pakistan along with some unpleasant instances of the weakness of human-beings.