A Flour Seller’s Story in the Aftermath of Peshawar’s Army Public School Attack
Published at The Caravan
Altaf Hussain runs a small flour shop in the heart of Saddar Bazaar, part of a town on the outskirts of Peshawar. I met Hussain quite by chance. It was in December exactly a year ago. I was there with a colleague for a couple of days, and we were roaming around the bazaar, where loose fabric in bright colours was sold alongside glittery glass bangles. Evening had fallen, and we were looking for a place to have tea. As I walked along the street, I noticed an elderly man walking towards me. He was dressed in a starched shalwar kameez, with a waistcoat and a heavy cane and black shiny shoes. As he stepped over a piece of cardboard on the street, his entire leg sank into a hole. He struggled to pull himself up with the cane, but the more he pushed the lower he seemed to sink. A group of men ran over and pulled him out. He grimaced, shaking his sewage-soaked leg, and without saying a word continued on his way. Now I could see that the entire street had holes in it, covered with flimsy pieces of cardboard. We proceeded carefully and finally found a tea stall at the end of the block, but there was no place to sit. The stench from the open hole still lingered in my nose, making me dizzy.
That was when Altaf Hussain offered us both a stool. His shop was next to the tea stall—a bare room raised above street level that opened out to the street. He sat cross-legged on the floor in the centre of three pale mounds. One with maida (refined flour), another with atta (whole wheat flour) and the third a mixture of the two. We chatted with him for hours, during which he told us he used to be a hockey player but had left the game after corruption had permeated the institution, much like it did in every place else in the country. I had given him my number when I was leaving, and he had called me the following day to find out if I had reached Karachi safely. My friend and I fondly remembered him as the Attay (flour) Wallah.
I live in New York now, and when I heard about the Tehrik-e-Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, my first instinct was to call Hussain. After a few tries I finally got through. We exchanged greetings and he said, “I have just returned from my nephew’s funeral. He was killed in the attack yesterday.” The line was bad, so I had to hang up and call Hussain again. While waiting to connect, I turned to my husband and told him what I had just heard. “What does it mean when you randomly call a person in Peshawar and find out he has lost a family member in the attack?” he asked. I had no answer.
“The whole of Peshawar is completely silent and desolate,” Hussain said when I called him back. He has six children of his own. His wife passed away a year ago. “The children all went to school like they do every morning,” he said. The older three had gone to school after leaving the younger three with their grandmother
He was getting ready to go open his flour store when he received a frantic phone call from his sister. Her son Owais was a student at the Army Public School. She had heard about the attack on the news. Hussain was completely oblivious to what was going on. There was no electricity that morning in Saddar Bazaar, and no one in the neighborhood had been able to tune in to the news. Hussain dropped his mother and children off to be with his sister and then, accompanied by his brother, he set off to search for his nephew.
According to news reports, over 132 students and nine staff members were killed in the attack when Tehrik-e-Taliban members, dressed in the green fatigues of the Frontier Constabulary, a government paramilitary force, entered the school premises by climbing over the boundary wall. “When the gunmen ran out of ammunition they started butchering the children,” Hussain said. “The principal was burned alive in front of the school.” Most of the children were taken to Lady Reading Hospital. Hussain could not find his nephew among the injured and the hospital staff directed him to the hall where bodies of children lay covered in white sheets.
“I searched the hospital hall for Owais. All the children’s bodies were there. I had to uncover their faces one by one to see if it was my nephew,” said Hussain. “I saw the face of every single child. They were such beautiful children. They were lying there like so many flowers,” he said.
Hussain’s nephew was not there, so he then went to the Combined Military Hospital. There, too, he had to look through each body. “There were too many dead children,” he said. “But in the end I found my nephew among them.”
The children’s deaths followed Hussain out of the hospital. There were a dozen funerals in his neighborhood alone. “Since yesterday it is as if every home has a funeral. There is utter silence everywhere. There are tears everywhere.”
Owais, Hussain’s nephew, was one of five siblings. The third child, he was considered the brightest in the family, and was the only one among his siblings to be sent to the Army Public School. “His parents sent Owais there so he would become someone,” said Hussain. The Army Public School is a relatively expensive school, but Hussain said that it had “good discipline.” “A lot of important people like brigadiers and generals send their children here. Few poor people can afford to send their children to this school,” he said.
With his income from the flour shop, Hussain could not afford to send any of his children to a place like the Army Public School, and his sister could only send one of hers.
The morning of the 16th, Owais had said he did not feel like going to school. “His mother forced him to go. She said school is important, you have to go.” Hussain’s voice caught as he spoke. His sister and brother-in-law were devastated by the news of Owais’s death. “I am worried that my sister and her husband themselves may die of grief,” he said.
The incident had instilled widespread fear among the people. “In Peshawar, every parent wants to send their child to the best school. But now all the parents are saying, if a high level school like the Army Public School is not safe then there is no hope for the protection of all other schools.” Now, it seems, every parent in Peshawar is faced with the same question Hussain posed: “Should we educate our children and send them to their deaths, or is it better to keep them alive and sit at home?”
A three-day mourning period, which began on Wednesday, is being observed in Peshawar. Hussain’s children are at home for now. The winter break is coming soon, but there are still a few more days of school left. I asked Hussain if his children will go next week, or if he will wait until after the break. “Of course I will send them to school. They have to go so they can get their homework for the holidays.”