“Riz, you have a phone call,” were the first words I heard as I entered the air-crew room after a mission.
I grabbed a mug of coffee and walked to the land line, hardly expecting it to be my 10-year-old baby sister on the other end. It was a surprise; she had never called me at my squadron before.
I tried recalling if I had forgotten anything she had asked for but nothing strikes my mind. Before I could even say anything, I heard loud erratic breathing. In her trembling voice she said:
“You’re going to kill each and every one of the bad guys out there, right?”
I was stunned. I said, yes, of course, that’s what I am here for.
She replied only with a “thank you” and hung up.
“A school in Peshawar has just been attacked,” I learnt, and for a moment I thought I had heard wrong.
How could someone attack a school, I asked myself. Even taking the perverse exploitation of religion by pseudo cults into account, how could someone think of targeting innocent children who would not even know why were they being targeted?
The unimaginable had happened.
The Army Public School in Peshawar had been attacked by seven terrorists who stormed in and opened fire indiscriminately and killed scores of our innocent angels – it was Armageddon.
Children were killed after confirmations of being sons of armed forces personnel. They were shot in the head. They were shot in the face. They were dragged out from under chairs, under tables and shot. At point blank.
Their offense? They were the children of those who have dedicated their lives to defend their countrymen.
Nine hundred and sixty students and staff members were evacuated safely by Pakistan’s Special Services Group’s, Zarrar Company, which is specialised in anti-terrorism and hostage evacuation aided by the Pakistan Air Force’s airborne surveillance aircraft.
One hundred and forty one of our countrymen died on one of the blackest days in the history of humanity.
One hundred and thirty three children aged between 5-18 years were killed with questioning eyes that asked, “What is our fault?”
A teacher was set alight alive, and students were made to watch. Humanity died 141 deaths that day.
My mother called me last night:
“Fight them. Kill them. They’ve hurt your mothers.”
Never had I heard my mother so enraged before.
“Even my life for vengeance,” I reassured her.
Armed Forces personnel are known to be emotionally distant and strong. My best friend gave his life for the motherland in my arms. I held his hands in mine and the last look on his face was of satisfaction; entreating me to continue the mission of safeguarding the country.
The blood from his chest spilled onto my hands, and sealed the deal.
Perhaps it is the military in us that stays our emotional pendulum from swinging back and forth wildly. We do not mourn our martyrs, we take pride in them.
Even so, it took me days to be able to write this, one is just short on words about this kind of savagery.
I’ve never heard such pin-drop silence in our fighter crew rooms, ever.
Even on losing our comrades in action, we get together and reiterate our resolve to continue the mission.
Thirty days today and no one has spoken a word since, just the exchange of silent reassurances between fighter pilots to avenge our children.
And avenge we will.
The nation has been shaken to its core by this vicious incident. People are eager to play their part in avenging the animals who took away our children.
Every heart in the country goes out to our mothers and wants to take away their pain, however possible.
The international media needs to align its true North too. These innocent children were not targeted because they were going to school; they were targeted because they were the children of the armed forces personnel who are fighting against terrorism.
Today, I visited Army Public School Peshawar.
As desolated as any place ever could be, I could visualise our traumatised children uncertain of what was coming at them in that blood streaked auditorium, I could hear them running in the destructed corridors amidst the gunshots. I could read their last messages on their bloodied books grabbed in pain.
I could hear them all around asking me if I would continue their mission and I inevitably, inadvertently, kept nodding in affirmation throughout.
Every step I took in those corridors strengthened my resolve to get back and fight back stronger than ever, but there was something I had to do first.
I visited the Combined Military and Lady Reading Hospitals in Peshawar to meet the injured children and their families and to visit the great mothers, who we as a nation are indebted to.
Every child I met in the hospital was an epitome of courage and resilience and could not wait to get better and get back to the same classrooms their friends had been shot in.
“I will go back and complete my studies in the same school and join our armed forces to fight all the enemies,” a 10-year-old injured student told me.
What a resolve, what a nation.
I then went to meet the mother of a 14-year-old victim. Believe me, fighting a war, bombing the enemy, facing bullets and missiles is a lot easier than facing a mother who has lost her child.
I walked in, the father of the student embraced me. I could hear his heart beat and his lips quiver as he took me to the child’s mother.
“He’s going to avenge our son,” he said, and suddenly, I felt the entire weight of the world descend upon my shoulders.
The mother looked up at me and all she could do was extend her hand towards me. I knelt down, took her hand in my hands and kissed it:
“Ma, I will avenge every single one of our children.”
A tear fell from her eye, rolled down on her cheek, dropped on our hands, and sealed the deal.
“What can we, as Pakistanis in the civil, do to help?” a very dear friend asked me.
First things first, we as fighter pilots and soldiers only need two things that boost our morale in the field infinite folds: national unity, and motivation.
All we need right now is motivation. There is no denial that this barbaric incident shook all of us. As the saner voices out there, we have all the more responsibility to get out, walk our people through these toughest of the times.
Our children will most likely develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; we have to talk them through this, motivate them, and give them a reason to believe. We have to give our people the hope they need to cling onto.
Help us, those who are at the front and build the nation.
This won’t be easy let me tell you but we will do it.
I will not mourn, I will not express my anger. I want to remember this incident as it is when I fight our enemies. I want to remember every face of every child as I destroy all the terrorists and turn their bodies to ashes. I will not sit back. I have written off my life in my oath to my nation, I am indebted to her a 141 times more now.
We shall avenge every last breath, every last drop of blood.
Every bomb that we target these hell bound terrorists with, will convey a message from the children of Pakistan, that they will not bend, and that they will stand up again. We shall rise.
May the Lord give me the strength to uphold the promise I made to my mothers.