In the Karachi office where I work, we were scared of the TV screen, even though we had pressed the mute button. We had been terrified we’d hear the screams of children being slaughtered 1,000 miles away in Peshawar. But every time we looked at the TV, the numbers had gone up. Five minutes earlier it was 36. How did that become 107? A colleague paced up and down, making calls and feeding us the latest rumours: they were separating the older ones from the younger ones. As if the 11-year-olds were more innocent; as if that 15-year-old was really asking for it.
Then there was another rumour that my colleague probably wanted to believe: because it was the Army Public School and College, and most of the students would be the children of military men, they were separating the military kids from the civilian kids. As we know, the army is carrying out an all-out war against the Taliban. My colleague’s son goes to a similar school in Karachi, and he reasoned that if something like that happened here, they would only target the military kids and leave us innocent civilians alone.
Ironically, the bloodied green blazers and jerseys of the Peshawar students speak of a Pakistan where education is revered, even by those who can barely afford it. I went to the only primary school in my village. It was run by the government and had one room. The teachers could barely speak Urdu, let alone English. The population of that village hasn’t quite doubled in the years since, but now there are at least five air-conditioned English-medium private schools to choose from. I have seen people on bicycles, motorbikes and even donkey carts picking up and dropping off their kids. There are peasants who might spend the whole year in the same pair of clothes, but their kids are always dressed in neatly pressed uniforms with school logos. Despite the fact that more than 25 million children still don’t attend schools in Pakistan, there has been an unprecedented education boom. Many of the country’s new billionaires have made their fortunes by setting up chains of private schools and colleges. Even though the Taliban has destroyed more than 1,000 schools in northern Pakistan, that hasn’t stopped people from sending their kids to class.
For those suspicious of private western education for religious reasons, there are private Islamised schools where they teach you halal history and halal computer science, where prayers and hijabs are mandatory. By the time I went to a government-run high school, religion had already crept into the pages of the textbooks. Our biology textbook, for example, came with chapters on reproduction and evolution – but teachers were not supposed to teach us those bits. Now we have history books with slightly more religion than the Bible contains. We have geography books that teach us about past Islamic conquests.
One would think that the Taliban would be pleased with an education system that instils its worldview at such an early age. But it doesn’t believe in being pleased with this transient life. It wants to drag us, kicking and screaming, into God’s own paradise. And if its members have to shoot schoolchildren in the process, so be it. The Taliban claims it attacks schools because these institutions spread the satanic west’s agenda. But there is a more prosaic reason. It’s easier to kill children and teachers than to attack heavily fortified military installations. It’s easier to blow up a school building than to bomb a police post.
It’s no surprise that the most famous Pakistani right now is a 17-year-old student and victim of a Taliban attack, Malala Yousafzai. Her bloodied uniform hangs in a glass display case in Norway, a symbol of modern Pakistan that, today, is even more tragically fitting