DOHA—It was early morning here and I settled at my desk with a cup of coffee. Being a journalist, part of my morning routine is to read the news. I was hovering over my Twitter feed when I saw posts about an attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan.
I felt a cold sweat. I come from the same city, although my immediate family has been settled in Qatar, where there are many South Asian immigrants, for 25 years. I knew a lot of my relatives had children who attended that school. I vigorously started investigating what had happened. Once I got a general idea, I started calling my family in Peshawar.
“Afaq passed away in the attack,” said one of my cousins. I could hear screaming, ambulances and women crying in the background. “What? Afaq? Afaq died?” I asked. “Yes he did. He was shot!”
Syed Afaq Ahmed was a ninth-grade student. My mother talked a lot about how ambitious he was, just like his siblings. He was a bright student and wanted to become a doctor.
I started calling all my possible contacts and contributed to an article in USA Today. I talked to a lot of students and found they were all devastated, yet more determined than ever before to get an education.
Some international media outlets covered the attack as a war against education, but it was carried out as revenge against the Pakistani Army operations in North Waziristan. “We killed these children so they can feel our pain when our children were killed in the army operation,” a Taliban militant based in Waziristan told me in a telephone interview.
But whatever the motive, the end result is the same. The school was the battle zone. One hundred and thirty two children and 10 teachers died in its classrooms. “I witnessed one of my teachers tied up to a chair by two Talibans who then chopped her hair off and set her body on fire,” a 12th-grade survivor told me. “I cannot forget those images.”
What happened in Peshawar was not unique to Pakistan. According to a report by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, there were 9,600 attacks on educational institutions in 70 countries between 2009 and 2013.
Even though most people probably didn’t want to hear the Taliban’s justification for the attack, I felt it was also important to try to understand it. “Every action has a reaction,” said the Taliban militant. “Our children were brutally killed too.” An Afghan Taliban member, on the other hand, condemned the attack on women and children. “I would say this was more of a revenge attack and has nothing to do with Islam,” he said. “In Shariah, it is not allowed to kill the family members of the wrongdoers. They are innocent and have not committed any crime.”
Iraq, Syria, Yemen and many other Arab countries are facing similar situations. Schools and universities have become psychological weapons of war. In Iraq, the Islamic State is recruiting children to join its army. Its goal appears to be to use education as a brainwashing tool to nurture a new group of supporters.
Whether attacks on educational institutions will create a generation that seeks peace or one that is locked in war remains to be seen. In some of my past reporting on Afghanistan, I found that many people in the country are promoting peace education, to try to counteract the violence that so many young people have seen. But some children who see war just want more of it. That may be happening in Pakistan.
“I wanted to be a first-rate astronomer, but now I want to join the Pakistani Army after completing my education, so I can take revenge,” said Aakif Azeem, a 12th-grade student in Peshawar.
“I will definitely go back to school,” he adds. “Even right now I’m ready to wear my school uniform and go back there where my friends, mentors and teachers were killed. Who do they think they are messing with?”