Chapter 1: Lost Souls
Army Public School Massacre - 16 December, 2014
There's this moment when your brain experiences shock so suddenly, it doesn't communicate to the rest of your body fast enough.
I walk into a room full of blood. Air filled with smell of burnt explosives and sounds of recently muted screams. Torn notebooks with doodles and scribbles put there by their recently deceased owners. Some 15, some as little as nine years old.
I float through this room completely stunned. Still haven't been able to process the shock. The military terms it as ‘the fog of war'. You are surrounded by extremely graphic scenes of death but you try not to stare at any one thing for too long, in fear of the horrors being imprinted in your brains eye for the rest of your life. Too late, I already know I will not be able to forget these gruesome scenes of death and destruction.
I know I am crying but no tears will come out. At least not yet. I look around the room and see others, some colleagues that had witnessed terror up close and personal. Some of these colleagues, men and women that have spent years witnessing the horrors caused by other men and women, yet on this day they are all floating.
I look to my right and see a good friend, an American photo-journalist. He is sitting down, crosslegged and with his head in his hands. Next to the auditorium stage, one of the only few spaces left without blood on the floor. Eyes shut tight as tears line down his cheeks. I look to my left and I see another journalist. A friend and a Pakistani news correspondent. Sitting in a dark corner of the room with his eyes wide open and a look of horror on his pale face.
I tell myself I have to get out of here. I have to get some fresh air to be able to breathe without inhaling fumes of blood and smoke. My brain is finally beginning to communicate the shock to my body. The nausea begins to kick in and I start to feel light headed.
I step outside the room and into a courtyard, to try and breathe clean air again. For a quick second I see how peaceful it would normally be. Trees planted all around. Classrooms with colourful posters hand made by students. I could see where they would get together and joke about. Where friendships would grow and boys would become men. I almost smiled. And then my senses picked up the smell of blood again and reality came back crashing. Whoever survived this day will spend the rest of their lives replaying images that they’d rather forget. These kids will never be the same. None of us would ever be the same.
I turn to my left and see a young Army officer. A Captain and his sergeant standing there as well. Presumably trying to find the same untainted oxygen I am trying to find. We are all in this together it seems. We are all in shock. The Captain looks at me with tears in his eyes and says "we failed them today". Tears that can no longer be held back start to flow uncontrollably from his eyes. I look at the enlisted man standing next to him. I can see he wants to hug his commissioned officer and cry with him. But rank comes in the way. He turns away from us and leans on to the railing instead.
I turn and start walking away to a quieter part of the courtyard and I see a more horrid image than before. I see a headless body slumped on the ground, its head a few feet away, looking at the opposite direction. I realise this is the body of one of the monsters responsible for the day's tragedy. I feel trapped in chaos with no safe place to turn to. I realise now there is no avoiding this fog.
I find a wall behind me. I lean on it and slide down to the ground. I still have not been able to speak a single word since I entered the room about thirty minutes earlier. I stare at my feet and I notice there is blood on my shoes. I close my eyes and put my head back to the wall and try to see nothing but black.
This trick had helped me in the past. But not today.
Realising I have a job to do, I collect myself and go back into the bloodied room. Nothing has changed since I left a few minutes earlier, except that there are more journalists, soldiers and police officers in the room.
I find a colleague standing over one of the student's desk and taking a photo with her smartphone. I walk over to her to see if she was alright, and I realise she couldn’t have been better. She was tweeting a photo of a torn notebook with blood on it that hadn't even dried yet.
She then commented on how viral her tweets were getting and she was getting so many hundreds of new followers by the minute. She could not stop herself from smirking. I look at her desensitised face and I want to scream at her. I want to grab her phone and break it in a hundred pieces. Instead, I walk away in pure disgust.
The days that follow are full of screams and blood and tears. Attending over a dozen funerals in just three days. Talking to survivors and families of the deceased, I find myself in a state of constant 'daze', not being able to sleep the entire time.
Driving out of Peshawar and heading back to Islamabad where a set of protests and rallies wait for us, I realise right away. I need to make a change. I start drafting my resignation email to my boss sitting all the way over in London. It takes me a few more days to finish the letter and finally hit send.
It’s been two months since the attack and the resignation letter. It’s my last day at the bureau and I cannot wait to get home to my dog Athena and my packed bags. A parting shot with friends and a temporary farewell.
I’m fleeing my demons. I’m going to the mountains.
Help me tell the story! Writing this book has made me realise I cannot do it when I'm constantly distracted by earning and each time I put the pen down, it takes me longer to pick it back up again!
If you'd like to donate and help me finish writing so the words can make it to a bookshelf someday, I'm accepting donations that range from $25 - $100 (please write first if you can make a bigger donation). In return, I'll make sure to send you a signed copy of the first batch printed, along with a photo from my first walk across Pakistan.