There were human bodies strewn like dry leaves on an autumn day.
For the first time in life, I saw burnt human flesh, smelled it, touched it and collected it; pieces of small children, big boys, and women. There was a severed hand with just a pink Mickey Mouse watch wrapped around and an amputated foot with the familiar Cheetah joggers. More than 130 dead bodies and an equal number of injured.
The bodies clad in white Edhi sheets were stacked on white marble shelves of Lady Reading Hospital Peshawar. The bereaved family members were made to identify their loved ones beneath those white sheets. There were all sort of expressions of grief; screams, cries, tears, sobs and at the end silence…just silence.
That day was not last week. That day was November 28, 2009.
As a young officer, I was on my first assignment in Peshawar. The attack in the busy Meena Bazar, a market frequented by women and kids for all sort of clothes and articles was executed with a vehicle laden with explosives.
The attack left everybody horrified and devastated. How could anybody attack women and children? How could the soon-to-wed be maimed and killed in broad daylight?
There were resolutions for revenge and retribution from the enemy. There were candle light vigils and commemorations for the dead. There were editorials and op-eds, debates and speeches.
Definitely, those responsible for the barbarism cannot be Pakistanis or Muslims or humans.
The debate got muddled and life went on. The enemy seemed so elusive and far away, and life went on.
The attack, however, was not the last one.
There were more. All sort of attacks; suicide bombers, car bombs, rockets and guerrilla ones. All sort of targets; army, police, courts, jails, press club, airport, hospitals and schools. There were kidnappings and beheadings, remote control bombs and vehicle fitted bombs, simple shootings and complex attacks. Police and soldiers were martyred, doctors and engineers abducted and politicians and businesspersons were targeted.
The dead just became a number and attacks just a thing people had to live with.
Again, there were condolence references and compensation packages. Again there were debates and speeches. The debates got muddled and life went on.
The enemy was nearer and more ominous, but still, life went on.
There were talks of solutions and responses. Short-term and long-term solutions, soft and hard solutions, theoretical and practical solutions, and easy and difficult solutions. Some preferred dialogue, others suggested combat operations.
Everything was tried; the soft approach, hard stance, dialogues and full scale operations, but the attacks kept coming and the dead bodies just kept on piling up.
The enemy again seemed elusive and remote. The war was thought to be even farther, in the tribal areas and across.
The debate again got muddled with more talk about causes and less about consequences. Factors thought to be causing all the hatred and violence were pinpointed, many of them beyond reach. The pacifists were encouraged by the declining frequency of attacks and the activists by the operation’s gains.
But once again, the nation has seen the most extreme form of violence and barbarism. The nation is united, angry and committed. This is the time to seize the moment — decide, plan and act.
This has to end once and for all.
The enemy is not elusive and distant. The enemy is within.
Those against education, civil order and rule of law are not hidden. The terrorists are trained and dispatched to kill and maim. Those who aid, abet, support and facilitate them are within us. They are still indoctrinating and recruiting our youth. They are still unabashedly misusing religion for violence and spewing hatred from loudspeakers.
The fight should be against hatred, violence and sanctioning of killings. The fight should be against the bigot next door, the sacrosanct radical and the apologist justifying terrorism.
The debate must not get muddled. The enemy should be found and dealt with. Mothers should not have to hold their breaths and fathers not keep standing outside as their kids sing the national anthem inside schools.