In the aftermath of the Peshawar tragedy

At noon the terrible news came over us: 132 children and several teachers were brutally and deliberately killed in a school in Peshawar. The phone doesn’t stop ringing. Our colleagues in New York, Geneva and all over the world must be informed about the terrible incident. Together we reflect on what can be done in this situation to give support to the children of Pakistan. Then a special call comes from our colleagues in Peshawar, the headcount: all UNICEF staff safe. At first we are relieved but then we learn that friends from our partner organizations in the polio programme have lost relatives: a sister who was a teacher and a son who was a student.

After a long series of crisis response meetings I am getting into my car and drive home late. In normal times security is already very tight, and one has to stop at several check points. Tonight, however, there is a particularly gloomy atmosphere hanging over the city. It is very quiet and hardly any people are on the road. I look into several machine gun barrels and my car is checked for explosive devices. Heavily armed anti-terror special forces are controlling all strategic street corners, their blue and red lights flickering through the foggy night.

132 children shot!? I drive on and think what is behind this abstract and absurdly high number. Anyone who knows parents who have lost a child before, can vaguely imagine the scale of personal tragedy that is unfolding behind every single victim. 132 Moms and Dads, who sent their sons and daughters to school this morning, will be forever waiting in vain for the return of their beloved child. 132 chairs will remain empty at dinner tables, 132 kids rooms will remain abandoned and silent. Whole families must bury their dreams and plans for the future. Moreover, they know that their little loved ones were in fear of death before they were shot. How can anybody cope with that?

The next morning remains unusually silent. Most businesses, cafes and restaurants are closed. The Government has declared a three day period of official mourning. But what I see is no official mourning, this is honest, tangible mourning in desperation. Flowers are laid down in many places. People who don’t even know each other stand shoulder to shoulder, light candles and pray together for the souls of the deceased.

I arrive at work and look into the devastated faces of my colleagues. Like me, most of them couldn’t sleep. Many are silently weeping as we switch on the TV: following Islamic tradition the first bodies are being laid to rest; children’s coffins are carried through the streets of Peshawar, unbelievable numbers of children’s coffins; Moms and Dads are breaking down in their grief. For us all one thing is instantly clear: this is not a ‘regular’ terror attack as we are sadly used to saying in Pakistan, this is an attack on humanity.

In such moments a feeling of emptiness, powerlessness, sadness; and yes anger dominates us. However, once our heads get clear again we would like to view these terrible events as a breaking point, as a chance to make lasting changes in favor of children’s rights in Pakistan; in particular for the right of protection from violence and the right to education. This is the least we can do for the little victims of this tragedy. We owe it to them.

For a long time now we have known that there are groups in Pakistan who fight against children’s education, in particular against girls’ education. We all know the story of Malala, the Nobel laureate for peace from the Swat Valley who was shot in the head just because she wanted to go to school. But we won’t allow these barbaric acts to discourage us.

On the contrary, we will see it as encouragement to continue our efforts to bring children to the classroom, and there are still 25 million children between five and 16 who currently don’t go to school. We know that most of these children come from the poorest parts of Pakistani society and that girls are disproportionately affected. For this reason we put high emphasis on supporting the girls and underprivileged children in our education programs.

The most underprivileged are of course those children who are displaced by conflict. The boys and girls who were murdered in Peshawar are only the latest victims in a bloody conflict between radical insurgents in North-Western Pakistan and the Government. More than 1,2 million children have been displaced this year alone. 42,000 still live in camps. Let us stand together and condemn this gruesome attack, but let us also go further – to support these children and get them back to school.

Daniel Timme is the Chief of Communication at UNICEF Pakistan.

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