Pakistan defiant one year after Taliban school massacre


Following the massacre of 136 school children one year ago, Pakistani politicians backed a military campaign to hunt down Taliban insurgents after years of confusion over whether the country should fight the militia or negotiate peace with them. More than 55,000 lives were lost in the previous decade of inaction.

Tehseen Ullah Durrani wanted his two sons to live his dream of becoming doctors and serving humanity. The 50-year-old medic from north-western Pakistan took a private job after retiring from the army to make sure his kids could attend better schools. But his hopes and ambitions ended when Taliban gunmen killed 136 students, including his sons Noor Ullah, 15, and 13-year-old Saif Ullah, at an army-run school in the city of Peshawar last December.

"It was the darkest moment of my life, to see my sons in a pool of blood," said Durrani, recalling the horror when he had to collect the bodies of his boys from a military hospital. "I had everything but got nothing in the end," Durrani said. One year on, his family is working through its grief. Durrani is now pinning his hopes on his three daughters. One is studying software engineering at university, another is preparing for medical studies and the youngest attends the same school where her brothers perished.

The school massacre changed decades of policy contradictions in Pakistan, said Amir Rana, head of a think-tank in Islamabad. "Two things have since changed significantly," said Rana. "The security situation has improved and the tolerance for the violence has decreased."

In response, the military stepped up offensives against Islamist militants in the country's tribal badlands near the Afghan border, killing nearly 3,500 rebels and regaining control of a large area of territory. "We will chase all terrorists from our soil," Army Chief Raheel Sharif said in September.

Politicians backed the military campaign to hunt down Taliban insurgents after years of confusion over whether the country should fight the militias or co-exist with them.  The deadly confusion cost Pakistan more than 55,000 lives, including both civilians and troops, according to the Interior Ministry. Peshawar police chief Mubarak Zeb said violent attacks had declined by 70 percent since the school attack.

In 2015, only 138 terrorism incidents – most of them relatively minor gun attacks – were reported, compared to 340 a year earlier.

"This is something remarkable for a city where bombs were going off every day only a few years ago," Zeb said. At the western edge of the city, adjacent to Khyber tribal district, Najeeb Ullah has been running a shop for 11 years and seen the worst of the violence by Islamist militants. The 33-year-old father of two said the past year was by far the most peaceful in a decade.

"The fear that the people lived with for years is gone," he said. Altaf Hussain, the father of the youngest and only female victim of the massacre, teaches at the same school where his 6-year-old daughter was killed and he himself suffered bullet wounds. His two sons and daughter now attend the school without "an iota of fear."

"Our children are gone, but their sacrifice is making the country safer," said the 42-year-old father, sitting on the floor of his living room, just a couple hundred meters from the school. "What should we fear now?" But Pakistan still has a long way to go defeat the militant mindset that is deeply rooted in the conservative Islamic society, said Fida Khan, a security analyst based in Peshawar.

In Islamabad, radical cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz at the controversial Red Mosque is challenging the government to enforce Taliban-style Islamic Sharia law. The military launched a deadly raid against his mosque in 2007 for alleged connections with al-Qaeda, but the hard-line cleric has since revived a network of Islamic seminaries for women.

Pakistani officials said Tashfeen Malik, the woman who killed 14 people in the US state of California this month, had links with Aziz. He has denied it. Authorities are trying to bring nearly 20,000 seminaries under official control by registering them, but influential clerics have resisted their attempts so far.

"That's still a problem," said Khan. "If radicalisation is to be eliminated, a coherent political, social and economic policy is needed. Just military success is never enough." Durrani hopes for an end to the curse of terrorism, so "no other father cries like me in long, dark and cold winter nights."    (dpa)

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