September 29th, 2020
By Hamid Riaz & Haider Kaleem
On December 16, 2014, a group of terrorists, overcoming at least 4 layers of security, scaled the walls of an Army Public School (APS) located inside the Peshawar Cantonment and carried out a massacre. For hours the terrorists held their ground and continued shooting at the innocent souls huddled inside as their parents stood outside the school walls; helplessly listening to the battle raging inside their children’s school. When the dust finally settled, the nation found out that 147 people including 132 children were brutally murdered.
Everyone demanded revenge. The attack mobilized the entire nation and provided the necessary public support to carry out what the military termed a “decisive operation” against terrorist strongholds inside the country. At the time the official narrative was straightforward: even though there were security lapses and a delay in the security forces’ response, once the operation began the security forces fought valiantly to crush the menacing terrorists and saved as many people as possible. The children were declared martyrs, songs were released and ceremonies were held to pay respect to the parents. Seemingly, the whole nation was largely “satisfied” by how the tragedy was handled.
As soon as the grand celebrations subsided, faint voices being raised by parents of the martyred children grew louder and louder and it was clear that even as the entire nation seemed to have ‘swallowed’ the official narrative and moved on, the most important stakeholders – parents of the martyred children – were far from satisfied with the official version of events. They formed an organization and held a series of protests to demand the truth behind their children’s demise. However, the plight of the parents of these martyrs was largely ignored.
Finally, 2 years and countless demonstrations later on October 5, 2018, in response to a written request by the parent’s forum, the supreme court ordered the formation of a ‘one-bench investigative commission’ under Justice Ibrahim Khan of the Peshawar High Court (PHC), the lowest-ranked justice of the PHC at the time. The commission reportedly heard testimonies from a broad range of stakeholders including the first responders, senior military and civil officials, and most importantly the parents of the children. It took another 2 years for the commission to compile its detailed report. The final report which comprised 3000 pages was presented in the supreme court on June 26th of 2020. Recently, on the 25th of September 2020, the supreme court ordered the government to ‘make public’ the commission’s entire findings. The government failed to comply and was able to publish only the ‘concluding pages of the report’.
Parents of the martyrs have called many portions of the released text “misleading” and have approached the supreme court demanding that the entire report be made public.
Major Claims in the Report
In addition to showering praises on the overall role of the armed forces in battling extremist elements in KP, the released text points out three major “factors” which facilitated and aggravated the attack on the school.
First and foremost, the report, surprisingly, lays down the onus of the attack on the local population stating that “locals helped and gave shelter to the terrorists who attacked the school”. Though no names were released, the report calls many locals “facilitators and traitors” without whose help the attack could not have been carried out.
The report also points towards the porous nature of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border at the time and the role it played in the terrorist’s entry into the country; hinting towards the free movement of Afghan refugees to and from Pakistan as a contributing factor to the attack.
Lastly, the report does admit that the response of the security forces especially the Rapid Response Force (RRF) (a subsidiary of the army) and the Quick Response Force (QRF) was ‘inexplicably’ delayed. Additionally, the report points out that the Mobile Vigilance Team was fooled by a simple decoy tactic – they had gathered around a car parked by the front gate of the school that had been set on fire, allowing the terrorists easy entry through the back gate. But again the report does not particularly name any officials found to be negligent and merely dispensed generic remarks.
Advocate Fazal; President Shuhada APS forum; rebuts key claims made in the report:
The chain of events
First and foremost, advocate Fazal Khan rebuts the chain of events narrated in the report. He claims that the stories of a “decoy” car at the front gate of the school are completely false. “There was only one car and it was against the back wall of the school, and this was the car which was later doused by the militants. The terrorists scaled the back wall and used a ladder to climb into the school grounds he said.
He also comments on the ‘delayed’ response of the security forces, positing that “after initial reports of the assault were out, the QRF of the KP police was on the spot within seven to eight minutes. But soldiers present in the area forbade them from entering the school, stating that since the school is owned by the military only army personnel will carry out the operation.” According to Fazal, since most of the carnage took place within the first 15 minutes of the assault, if the QRF had been allowed to go in more lives could have been saved.
Local Residents, Afghan Refugees, or security forces: Who is to blame?
Fazal rubbished remarks calling the local residents ‘treacherous’. “The school was not in a peripheral village where fanatic elements could hope to find sympathizers. It was located in a highly sensitive area, in the heart of the cantonment. The Assistant Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner, the Core Commander, and other high profile civil and military personnel live in the vicinity of the school. How did the terrorists manage to enter this area in the first place?” he deplores.
Fazal demands that the officers responsible for this glaring security lapse be taken to task. “Several high-ranking officials later admitted to their negligence, but instead of being reprimanded, they were promoted,” Fazal alleges.
He also points out that Ehsanullah Ehsan, who took responsibility for the attack on behalf of his organization, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), lived as an honorary guest with military officials. He should have been severely punished but instead, he was allowed to escape.
Advocate Fazal makes a sensitive claim that a Special Services Group (SSG) commando by the name of Mudasir admitted that “they” had carried out the attack and even apologized for it on national television.
We swore on the blood of our children that we will fight for justice till our end
Advocate Fazal states that he and several other parents are deeply unsatisfied with how the entire investigative process was handled. “It seems as if the report was made somewhere else and the Judge merely rubber-stamped it,” Fazal states that he will fight for the truth in the Supreme Court and if that does not work he will approach the United Nations for justice.
“Our rulers consider us to be second-class citizens but we will not give up,” he says. “We will launch a hunger strike if we have to but we will not back away from our cause.”