APS Massacre: 5 Years On, Families Of Victims Continue To Live With Trauma
The image of blood-soaked green coats comes back to haunt me every year on December 16. The screams of grief-stricken mothers, fathers calling out the names of their children in desperation and an overall feeling of despair and hopelessness remain with you for the rest of the day as well as the next few days following that. I am pretty certain that almost every Pakistani can relate to this feeling. What happened on that day can never be forgotten.
On 16 December 2014, Pakistan was struck with a tragedy that shocked the nation to its core. Armed with automatic weapons, grenades and wearing exploding belts, six individuals made their way into Army Public School (APS) Peshawar and proceeded to fire indiscriminately upon teachers and students alike. By the end of the day, around 150 deaths had occurred of which the majority were schoolchildren between the ages of eight and eighteen, cementing itself as the fourth deadliest school massacre in the world and Pakistan’s worst terrorist incident to date.
The incident sent ripples of shock, outrage, anger and most of all pain throughout not only the country but the entire world. Governments condemned the attacks; famous personalities expressed their support to the grieving families and even the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda stated that: “Our hearts are bursting with pain”.
Pakistani media, especially the news stations, were broadcasting the tragic stories of the victims for what felt like forever. The entire country was in mourning for the death of this many young yet none suffered more than the families of the deceased, within a day their lives had taken a turn for the worst and left open a wound that will most likely never completely heal during their lifetimes.
5 years later, we mark the anniversary of the attack on this day and the Pakistani media takes its attention away from the current political discussions to remind us of the tragedy. Tributes are paid to the victims. Memorials and candlelight vigils are held in remembrance of the lives lost. But just a day later, all is back to normal — our lives are filled once again with more immediate concerns and issues. But while we have the luxury to move on with our lives, there still are those who have been left behind, the families of the deceased who have never moved past December 16 2014.
Last year I had the opportunity to visit some of these families as part of a research being carried out on the problems they were facing five years after the shooting. We visited homes that had lost sons and brothers — children in some of the earliest years of their lives. The homes were beautiful, the family plentiful, the colors bright and yet they felt so indescribably empty. Rooms left untouched and preserved as they were five years ago. In some homes the pictures of the deceased would smile upon me no matter which room I entered, and in some they were shown to me in private so as to not cause unintentional pain and grief to the other members. When I stepped into each of those homes I was transported back to December 2014.
Their suffering still continues to this very day. Their bodies are weaker than they should be, their weary eyes a testament to their restless nights. “There is no more joy in our lives,” some said to me. “I miss them every single day,” confess all of them. And yet their presence can still be felt amongst some. “I feel like he is still physically there,” says one while another expresses, “I can sometimes smell his scent in the rooms.” Their hopes for the future are uncertain. They put on brave faces for their remaining children. But inside they are still hurting, an open wound that will never close, will never heal and flare up on every anniversary of the death of their loved ones.
I shed tears with the mothers in their homes. I shed tears in the privacy of my own home. Many of their words are now engraved upon my own heart. I will never forget them until the day of my own passing. I did the best I could: I listened to their stories and their sorrows. I consoled them as they shed their tears and reminded them of the good memories to help counter the bad ones. I praised their strength for they truly are some of the strongest people I have had the privilege of meeting. When I left their homes, I took a little piece of them along with me, be it a souvenir with their child’s face on it, a story of their past or even the memories of our discussions. In a way when I left their homes, I took a little bit of 16th December 2014 back home with me.
These families have not been completely left by themselves; they find solace in the company of other families who have also lost loved ones. After all who better would know the difficulties they are facing other than them? Together they celebrate the life and death of their deceased children, meeting up on holidays and birthday anniversaries. They have been brought together by their collective tragedies as very few outsiders can provide them with the support they need.
This year has been difficult for all of us, especially due to the Covid-19 pandemic that has plagued the world at large and caused untold death and suffering. Can you imagine how much harder it will be for the families that will spend the entirety of today reliving the worst moments of their life all over again? We need to come together and do our best to reach out. It can be anything from a silent prayer to sending over a small gift or maybe even taking the time out to visit them. These families mostly have each other for support but they don’t need to. While we cannot bring them back from that day on December 16th 2014, we can try to go there with them and make the day more bearable for them for as long as we are there.
The writer is a Psychologist and has more than 10 years of experience in providing counseling sessions to children, youth and women on psychosocial issues in conflict hit zones.